Scanlan: Sens captain looks good in first game back

He’s baaaack! And his back is a lot better, thanks for asking. Sure, it was only preseason hockey, but tell that to fans of the Ottawa Senators, who gave captain Daniel Alfredsson a hero’s welcome when he stepped back on the ice for his first game since Feb. 7 — when he had to shut it down for the final 28 games.


BY WAYNE SCANLAN

He’s baaaack!

And his back is a lot better, thanks for asking.

Sure, it was only preseason hockey, but tell that to fans of the Ottawa Senators, who gave captain Daniel Alfredsson a hero’s welcome when he stepped back on the ice for his first game since Feb. 7 — when he had to shut it down for the final 28 games.

“It felt great to be out there. It was fun playing in this rink again,” Alfredsson said after the game. “I kept it fairly simple, just tried to work myself in, get the pace … overall I’m happy.”

Judging by his on-ice jump — literally leaping at times to engage in puck battles — Alfredsson’s comeback game was a complete success. True to his word, the captain kept his shifts short, averaging 37 seconds per foray in the first period as he eased his way into game conditioning. By the end of two, the shift length had grown to 44 seconds. He took on all duties, including penalty kill and power play.

To review: a long-term issue with a pinched nerve in his back was causing a heaviness, a lack of strength in Alfredsson’s right leg. He had surgery in mid-June to correct the problem, was on his feet the same day, and rehabilitated throughout the summer. Head coach Paul MacLean’s high-tempo workouts did the rest.

Veterans are normally groaning at this point about the monotony and fatigue of camp. Not Alfredsson. Coming off surgery and not having played in the first two Ottawa preseason games, he felt the timing was ideal to take his back for a test drive. He went so far as to praise the skating marathon that has been training camp 2011.

“I think it has (helped), especially mentally, to handle it — for my groins and hip flexors, too, not just my back, and not be limping out of here every day,” he says. “It’s been tough, but I think it’s been good for me and for the team. We may not be (physically) peaking right now, but we’ll benefit from this moving forward.”

Asked the familiar age question in a media scrum Friday, Alfredsson said he doesn’t have an issue, being 38 at this time of year.

“I don’t think in September I do,” he says. “Ask me in February, it might be a different story. Right now I feel really good. The recovery part is obviously the biggest difference from when you’re in your early 20s compared to late 30s. But up until this point I’ve been feeling good, I have a jump in my leg, I feel strong. Hopefully I can keep up with the young guys.”

Against the visiting Canadiens, Alfredsson played on the right side of rookie centre Stéphane Da Costa and veteran winger Milan Michalek, who scored a second-period goal off a brilliant Da Costa puck steal. For now, MacLean wants to spread out the offence by having Alfredsson and centre Jason Spezza on different lines.

The new head coach says he knows he always has the Alfie-Spezza-Michalek unit as “something in my back pocket,” as required. We’ll see. Alfredsson has been around too long to get caught up in preseason line combinations with or without the team’s top centre.

“I think it usually sorts itself out through the preseason, so we’ll see how it shapes up at the end, but we’ve played well with each other and we’ve played well with other players as well,” Alfredsson said of Spezza. “I think both of us can help carry a line. Jason, especially, showed that at the end of last year.”

Ah, yes, the end of last year. It was Alfredsson’s misfortune to miss out on the Senators’ modest 15-11-2 run to close out 2010-11, benefiting from Craig Anderson’s goaltending and contributions from Binghamton call ups.

It ran contrary to the Senators’ history of performing poorly when their captain is gone for long stretches, and that’s just one of the reasons people trained their eyes on No. 11 on Friday night, watching him as though he were a loved one (no stretch there) in his or her first minor hockey game of the season.

Alfredsson admits he is a better, smarter player than he was as a Calder Trophy-winning rookie in 1995-96, though he isn’t ready to be labelled a cagey (read: slow) vet just yet.

“I think that goes for any profession,” he says. “You know where to put your energy more. But I don’t want to just play smart all the time, I want to be physical when I can and stir things up.”

Music to the ears of Senators fans, who know that a bounce-back season begins with a comeback by the captain.

Contact Wayne Scanlan at wscanlan@ottawacitizen.com. Follow him on twitter@HockeyScanner

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