Chris Neil (with Zack Smith behind) will likely be asked to take on a bigger fighting role with former tough guys Matt Carkner and Zenon Konopka gone.
Photograph by: Julie Oliver, Ottawa Citizen
SUNRISE, Florida — Forget, for a few moments, about the early stellar goaltending of Craig Anderson, the goal scoring of Kyle Turris and the consistent play of the defencemen. Look beyond the marquee names.
That’s where you’ll find the Ottawa Senators’ third line of centre Zack Smith, right-winger Chris Neil and left-winger Colin Greening. The three have been invaluable through the opening two games against the Winnipeg Jets and Florida Panthers, either creating or maintaining sustained pressure inside the opposition blue-line, causing turnovers and wearing down defencemen.
As they prepare for a rematch against Florida here Thursday, they’ve already picked up a variety of descriptions, ranging from a Crash and Bang unit to a Grind Line to a No Nonsense trio. Given their size — Smith is 6-2 and 212 pounds, Greening stands 6-2 and 217 pounds and Neil checks in at 6-1, 215 pounds — they can be intimidating when they work the boards.
Smith, for one, has no issue if they’re perceived as less skilled than many other forward combinations around the NHL.
“You can say it, I’m not offended; we know what we are,” says Smith, who had a lively night in Monday’s 4-0 home-opening win over the Florida Panthers, going 9-3 in faceoffs, and registering four shots, three hits and seven penalty minutes, the latter coming in a spirited fight with Panthers defenceman Keaton Ellerby. “That’s our game, to hit and take the puck to the net. Hopefully, we can be playing against top lines and shutting them down. I think we’ve done a good job so far, creating some momentum.”
Personally, Smith says, “I want to be known as a solid defensive player, be known as a guy who finishes checks and works hard, but I think that’s the mindset of all three of us.”
While on the topic of nicknames, Greening might best be described as Mr. Versatility. He has played everywhere from first line to fourth line, both in Ottawa and with Binghamton of the AHL. He spent a good portion of his 2011-12 rookie season riding shotgun on left wing with Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek, scoring 17 goals, but there were no complaints when coach Paul MacLean moved him down the roster in order to create better balance.
“I knew I would take on a different role when I came in (this season),” says Greening. “They brought up (Jakob) Silfverberg and brought in (Guillaume) Latendresse. That’s fine with me. I’ve said it numerous times. I want to be a versatile player. I feel like I can play on any number of lines. I try to read off my linemates and bring out the best of them. If I can do that on any line, then I think I’m doing my job.”
Greening says MacLean is offering the line a measure of respect by often putting them on the ice following Senators goals, wanting to maintain momentum with a basic strategy: keeping the puck deep in the other team’s end.
That approach is, of course, nothing new to Neil, who has become one of the team’s most popular players due to his countless hits against opponents during his 11-year career — with his gloves on and off. Neil’s 91st career goal, against Winnipeg, came from the place where most of them have come from: the gritty area in and around the crease.
“The biggest thing for us is try to keep it simple, keep the puck going forward,” he says. “If we start going side to side, that’s when we get into trouble. We want to get cycling. We’re three big bodies. It’s fun when you’re playing down in their end.”
Neil, however, recognizes that it’s still early in the season and everything is subject to change. He also knows that as the Senators continue to have success, the team’s toughness will be challenged. Neil will likely be asked to take on a bigger fighting role with former tough guys Matt Carkner and Zenon Konopka leaving as free agents last summer.
“The look of our team has changed and (the injured) Jared Cowen is another big body who we will miss and it puts a little more pressure on (Smith) and myself,” says Neil, who has 1,863 career penalty minutes. “It’s hard to replace a guy (Carkner), who is 6-4 and 230 pounds and chiselled. He’s one of a kind.”
Some additional fighting pressure might fall upon new defenceman Marc Methot, especially since he has been partnered with star defenceman Erik Karlsson. Methot, however, says the days when every NHL team carried a “legit heavyweight and a legit middleweight” is gone.
“Maybe there will be games where we probably could use (another fighter), but overall, we’re very happy with the mix and we have guys that can step up when necessary. It’s not like we have a team full of killers, but we have a lot of guys that are good role players that can do the job, if need be.”
Methot also has the ultimate respect for all the dirty work put in by Smith, Neil and Greening, claiming it’s a tough role to play game after game.
“It’s not an easy job,” he says. “I really think people sometimes take it for granted.”
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