Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The Ottawa Senators needed a jolt of some kind in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals and it came in the form of a 6-1, 209-pound wrecking ball named Chris Neil.
Neil played a huge role in Ottawa's much-needed Game 3 victory against the Anaheim Ducks, as he scored his team's first goal and provided the physical presence the Senators were so clearly lacking in the first two games in Anaheim. The victory cut Ottawa's deficit to 2-1 in the series and gave the club a chance to tie the set on Monday night.
Even though the Ottawa fans had to witness the home team fall behind by a goal on three separate occasions, Neil did his part to keep the crowd in the game with his steady barrage of jarring hits on the opposition.
Folks who have seen Neil play enough will not be shocked by the game he had on Saturday evening. In fact, the reason he is on the team is to throw his body around and to get underneath the opposing team's skin. He did both of those things on Saturday and also managed to chip in with some offense.
What made Neil's Game 3 performance extraordinary is revealed in the story of the day that came before the hockey contest. Neil was not with the team for the second game of this series, but rather chose to be with his pregnant wife, Caitlin. The couple had their first child, a daughter named Hailey, on Friday night, less than 24 hours before game time on Saturday.
Chris Neil provided the physical presence the Senators were so clearly lacking in the first two games in Anaheim.
"It was like a roller coaster ride, waiting in line especially at the hospital," said Neil. "But just my wife is a trooper and it was amazing. I can't say enough. I knew where I had to be. It was amazing. And that's - you can't put words behind that. You just watched your baby being born."
Winning a hockey game can hardly compare to witnessing the birth of your first child, but Neil's inspired play on Saturday should add to the joy of the experience. Someday, he'll be able to show his daughter that game and tell her, "This happened when you weren't even a day old."
Sometimes players of Neil's ilk are criticized for their aggressive style of play and that was the case earlier in the season when Neil was accused of playing dirty. In a February 22nd game against Buffalo, Neil steamrolled Chris Drury with a clean, but late hit, which caused a full-scale brawl in the game and resulted in the Sabres co-captain missing the next four tests. Neil was not suspended for the hit, but Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff was among a few people who called the play "dirty".
So naturally, Neil was asked to chime in on an incident that occurred in Saturday's game against the Ducks when Anaheim defenseman Chris Pronger leveled Dean McAmmond of the Senators with an elbow to the face. Pronger, who is considered to be one of the best all-around defenseman in the league, has been suspended by the NHL for Game 4 of the series, his second one-game suspension of this year's playoffs.
"It's a quick game out there," said Neil. "Everyone was all over me about the Drury hit. Things happen in high tempo. Try to be clean as possible. We seen it in the last series with him (Pronger) on (Tomas) Holmstrom, he had an elbow to the back of the head. He's known for that."
It was an interesting comment, one that hinted at sympathy for Pronger but also declared that a player is ultimately responsible for his actions in the past and present.
The NHL is filled with players like Neil and Pronger, who struggle to toe0 the line between physical and violent. On Saturday evening, we saw the best and worst of those examples, hopefully, the rest of the way have more performances like Neil's and less like Pronger's.