"On the bench right before, I said to Colin and Smitty, I go, 'Why can't it be us? Our line go out and get a goal?' And on the next shift, we went out and we were able to score."
-Chris Neil, after scoring the overtime game-winner in game two.
In fact, all season long Neil's been stepping up for the Senators and filling in as a team leader. He's done it in the few games where he's been an official associate captain, but he hasn't needed a letter to make his statements. He's embraced his role mentoring the team's younger players, and it seems to have added some energy to his game--energy Neil has been lacking for much of the last few seasons.
His leadership by example through this season and post-season so far likely shouldn't surprise us, though. Chris Neil has always been proud to be an Ottawa Senator, and has literally bled for his team and his teammates.
I won't begin to count the number of times Neil's fought, because there probably isn't enough room on the Internet to list them off in any detail. But check out his Hockey Fights profile for an idea. Whether or not you like fighting--at the risk of stating it too often, I would prefer far less fighting in the game--you can't deny the statement Neil makes every time he drops the gloves for his team or a teammate.
A funny thing about Neil's willingness to drop the gloves in order to get his teammates going is that he doesn't care who it's against--even teammates. In the last few seasons, he's fought Chris Campoli (in 2011), Wade Redden (in 2008), and nearly Ray Emery (also in 2008) during team practices. At first glance, fighting teammates in practice doesn't seem like a desirable thing, but, for an intense guy like Neil, it seems like something he does to "keep teammates honest." There's a cliché that players practice the way they play, and Neil seems to expect commensurate intensity, especially if things are going wrong in games (as was the case during the three aforementioned instances). Fighting in practice is how Neil challenges his teammates to step it up. I'm sure his coaches appreciate it.
Sometimes, the simplest statements are the most effective motivators. Neil's comment at the top of this post is a perfect example: It's a common-sense statement that his linemates were probably thinking subconsciously, but not explicitly, and it raises a good question: Why not them? Why shouldn't the grinders also be the heroes?
When Neil signed his most recent contract, many thought $2.1M was an overpayment. At the time, I thought Neil was on the downturn of his career, and the punishment he'd taken was taking its toll on his body. This year, though, he's proven me wrong by stepping up this year, especially on Saturday night.
If Sens owner Eugene Melnyk looked at his books shortly after Neil's overtime winner, I'm sure he saw that $2.1M as money well spent.