TORONTO — One is a raw rookie, the other is competing on a wounded knee.
But for the banged up, goals-starved, Ottawa Senators, the sight of wingers Mark Stone and Milan Michalek was a modern version of the cavalry arriving in an old Western movie.
Michalek, who has been out since suffering knee swelling during the pre-game warmup in Pittsburgh on Feb. 13 (the fateful night of Erik Karlsson’s injury), will return to the Senators lineup against the Maple Leafs Wednesday. Stone, who suffered a broken finger while playing for AHL Binghamton on Jan. 26, could be inserted, as well.
Head coach Paul MacLean said a decision will be made on Stone’s status Wednesday. If either or both can do anything to help Ottawa’s anemic offensive production, it will be a drink of water to a thirsty team.
“With Milan we’re geting someone that has the ability to shoot the puck in the net for us,” MacLean said. Indeed, Michalek’s 35 goals last season led the team. “And Mark Stone has a history of doing that in his junior days.”
It’s worth remembering Michalek had only scored two goals in 13 games for the Senators this season. But with so many rookies in the lineup, captain Daniel Alfredsson said the club is glad to have Michalek’s “leadership, speed and skills” back on the ice.
A word of caution: while Michalek’s knee swelling has subsided, the knee issue has not completely gone away. It’s the same knee that required major surgery in 2010 and he will likely need a surgical clean up when the season is over, assuming his knee holds up for the final weeks.
Ben Bishop returns to the net as the Senators try to stem the tide of road losses. Through the first three games of a five-gamer, Ottawa has lost every which way – in overtime in Boston, in regulation against Philadelphia and via the shootout Sunday in Long Island, where goaltender Robin Lehner got the start.
Bishop was in goal when the Senators beat the Leafs 3-2 on Feb. 23 at Scotiabank Place, with a goal in the dying seconds of regulation. Toronto won the first game of the season series, 3-0 on home ice Feb. 16.
After Wednesday’s game, the Senators reach the half-way point of their season, then play in New York on Friday night before returning to a Monday home date with the Bruins.
The team’s assessment of itself at the mid-point? Not bad, considering all the injuries. Defencemen Karlsson and Jared Cowen are done for the year. Centre Jason Spezza is not expected back soon, although he did make the trip to provide moral support. Even goaltender Craig Anderson, a Vezina Trophy candidate off his early play, is still recovering from an ankle sprain and stayed back in Ottawa to rest and recuperate from recent on-ice work.
General manager Bryan Murray said Anderson has experienced some soreness in the ankle and the club does not want him to risk further injury. Big winger Guillaume Latendresse also remained home to train and skate, in his recovery from whiplash and migraine issues.
Despite it all, the Senators remain in playoff contention, having used a strong home record (9-1-2) to compensate for road struggles (3-6-2).
“We’re not going to go away,” said Alfredsson, vowing this team would continue its push toward a top-eight finish. “We’re going to give everything we can to keep it going.”
As one of the few veteran leaders, Alfredsson admires the way the young callups have played with structure and discipline, most nights.
“Its been real exciting to see some of the young guys come in and play as well as they have,” Alfredsson said. “That’s the challenge, to keep doing it night after night. So far, they’ve done a good job of that.”
MacLean admits that with seven or eight rookies in the lineup on any given night, they can sometimes be slightly awestruck playing in historic hockey centres like Toronto, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Second time through, he hopes they feel more comfortable.
“Would we like to be doing better? Yeah, we got off to a great start,” before tailing off,” MacLean noted. However the second half plays out, MacLean believes “the growth of our organization through adversity has been outstanding.
“Not only for the players that are here, that we brought up from Binghamton but the players in Binghamton that now get a chance to expand their role with the team down there,” MacLean said.
In particular, MacLean cited the work of Randy Lee, the director of hockey operations and player development, along with other staff, for getting players ready for the NHL. Binghamton head coach Luke Richardson has done a terrific job with an AHL lineup in even greater flux than Ottawa’s.
“If we can get a few more guys back, we can start to think of being more consistent, developing our game and our identity even further,” MacLean said.
It starts with getting Michalek back in time for the latest installment of the Battle of Ontario.