Senators notebook: Winchester finally returns to game action

Jesse Winchester’s darkest day came after an exercise session in February.

UNIONDALE, New York — Jesse Winchester’s darkest day came after an exercise session in February.

When he suffered a concussion in a Dec. 20 game against the Buffalo Sabres, he figured he’d be out for a week and a half, have a little break over Christmas, and be back.

But now it was two months later, he wasn’t getting any better, and he was starting to think he was looking at the end of his hockey career. That thought shook him.

“I don’t want to say I underestimated it,” he said on Sunday morning. “I just didn’t know.”

So after 44 games and a little more than three months, he was thrilled and relieved to make his return against the New York Islanders.

“It’s a special day for me,” he said.

“It’s been a long time. I don’t think I would have ever guessed that it would have taken this long, but it has.

“But I feel great, I’ve passed all the tests, and I’m just going to play the way I have to play. It’s going to be fun and I’m excited.”

Senators coach Paul MacLean knew Winchester was ready but also wanted to be cautious.

“The pace of the game has picked up since Jesse’s played it, so we really wanted to make sure that he was up to speed physically and he was going to be able to do it,” said MacLean.

“And he’s been absolutely badgering us for the last couple of days to let him play.”

Winchester’s recovery has been one of increments, making progress bit by bit.

“I’ve felt really great in the last week and a half,” he said.

“Probably the last game in Montreal (March 23) I’ve started to feel more like myself, but they wanted me to continue on preparing like I was going to play. They wanted me to take a little bit extra time, just to make sure I was good for a full week without feeling anything.

“I started to feel like myself, away from the rink, a month ago. There were just a few lingering effects, but they’re gone now and they’ve been gone for awhile.

“I’m just happy to be back.”

It is also significant for the continuation of his career. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He doesn’t make much at only $750,000 a year, but there figures to be tough competition for jobs this summer.

The only other lineup change against the Islanders had Matt Gilroy, who’s from Long Island, coming in for Matt Carkner on defence. Gilroy was scratched for the last three games.

It wasn’t that Carkner had played poorly, said MacLean.

“We just think it was time we got Matt Gilroy back into the lineup,” he said.

NEW BABY FOR THE SPEZZAS: Jason Spezza’s wife Jennifer gave birth to the couple’s second daughter at 6:15 a.m. on Sunday morning.

Nicola Patricia is now the little sister to big sister Sophia.

She tipped the scales at five pounds, 14 ounces.

RELEGATION WOES: Mika Zibanejad’s Swedish season will end soon, likely on a sour note. His team, the storied Stockholm-based franchise Djurgarden, is on the verge of being relegated to the second division.

It has two games left, at home against Bofors on Tuesday and on the road against Rogle BK Anglestad on Friday.

The plan is still for Zibanejad to come to Ottawa.

He will likely play some games in Binghamton, which he can do without burning a year of his contract.

Then the Senators would have to decide whether to activate him with the NHL team, which would burn a year of his contract.

WASTED WORDS: MacLean said he wasn’t going to remind the players that a win against the Islanders would clinch a playoff berth.

“I think they’re really well aware of where they sit,” he said.

GOALIE PROBLEMS: There was some speculation Sunday that the Islanders would start 36-year-old John Grahame against the Senators.

With Evgeni Nabokov sidelined by an undisclosed lower-body injury, the Islanders signed Grahame as a backup for the last five games of the season.

When Al Montoya lost to the Bruins 6-3 on Saturday, matching his career high for goals allowed, it was thought Grahame would make his first NHL start since Feb. 18, 2008.

But the Islanders decided to stick with Montoya.

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