Winger Neil fits bill for Senators

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OTTAWA -- Ask a casual fan what the typical hockey player looks like, and they are apt to describe Chris Neil.

Square jaw. An even more square body. Think Barney Rubble with no front teeth.

   

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Neil, a 27-year-old winger with Ottawa, has some stats to match the look. He led the NHL in hits this season with 288 (3.51 a game) and is approaching 1,000 penalty minutes through five seasons.

That's where Neil stops being typical.

He is a square peg in a round hole, a tough guy whose role is multidimensional.

Neil showed that Wednesday night when he got a goal and an assist -- not to mention three hits -- in Ottawa's 6-3 win against the Penguins in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.

It was a night when the Senators' big three -- linemates Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson -- each had a point but were among 13 players who had at least one.

"That's the real reason why we won, 6-3, because everybody chipped in," Spezza said yesterday after Ottawa practiced at Scotiabank Place in preparation for Game 2 tomorrow.

"It wasn't a game where me, [Heatley] and Alfie had to score four or five goals to give us a chance to win. It was one of those nights where everybody was going. That's why it wasn't a closer game."

Neil's assist came in the first period when Chris Kelly gave the Senators a 2-0 lead that had the Penguins reeling. His goal came on a third-period 2-on-1 breakaway with Antoine Vermette and closed out the scoring.

"It was a typical Chris Neil game, I think -- strong guy, quick now," Ottawa coach Bryan Murray said. "He wasn't that way a few years back.

"He's very confident with the puck. He's a very physical player. Likes to hit people. He's a real strong guy. If he keeps playing at that level -- which I don't think for him will be very hard to do -- he's a real productive player."

Neil said it was Murray, the second-year Senators coach, who let him skate beyond the tough-guy mold.

Under Murray, Neil, 6 feet and 209 pounds, takes a regular shift on the third and sometimes second line.

He played in all 82 regular-season games. He had 12 goals and 28 points this season, giving him 104 points in 383 career games. Three of his 12 goals were winners.

"Some coaches have it in their mind that you're a tough guy and that's all you can do, but, for the most part, a lot of tough guys can play in this league," Neil said.

"I've gotten a better opportunity the last couple of years to play, and that's half the battle. If you get an opportunity, you've got to roll with it. Good things happen when you work hard."

While Neil is happy to chip in on offense, he hardly is looking to nudge someone off of Ottawa's top line, the three players who led the team in scoring this season. He figures when he and others do their part, they are setting the table for Heatley, Spezza and Alfredsson.

"We've got four lines that we've been able to roll," Neil said. "That saves your top line, keeps them fresher out there. That helps out a lot."

It's appreciated.

"That's huge for us," Heatley said. "The reason why we were so successful this season, and the last few months especially, was that we were getting scoring from everybody. [Wednesday] night was a good indication of that."

For the most part, it's not goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury but the Penguins' skaters who might want to brace themselves for Neil the rest of the series.

He's likely to finish with a lot more hits than points.

"I think it's going to be a physical series," Neil said. "They've got a bunch of guys who run around and make a lot of hits. So do we."

Additional points will be a bonus.

"It's great to see him score a playoff goal," Spezza said of Neil. "He plays hard for us. He really makes our physical game go."


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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