OTTAWA – Chris Neil is on the verge of a milestone. The Buffalo Sabres have played as big a part in it as anyone.
They’ve also provided him with two of his most vivid memories.
Neil played in his 995th game Tuesday night when Ottawa hosted the Sabres. Barring injury, the Senators right winger will reach 1,000 in a couple of weeks. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he added his 209th NHL fight along the way.
“Playing 1,000 games the way I’ve played compared to some guys that play 1,000 games, it’s a different style, for sure,” Neil said in Canadian Tire Centre. “I love the game and I’m passionate about it. That’s what’s kept me going.”
Neil made his debut Oct. 3, 2001, when Jack Eichel was just 4 years old. The 37-year-old has played almost an entire season against Buffalo. He suited up to face the Sabres for the 73rd time Tuesday, tied with Toronto for the most games against any opponent.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of pride that I’ve been around and played that long,” he said. “You take pride in winning those games. They’re always four-point games, and it’s been fun to be part of the rivalries that we’ve had against the teams.”
Neil has recorded 16 assists and 25 points against the Sabres, his highest totals versus anyone. But offense isn’t how Neil has made his living for 15 seasons. He’s been dropping the gloves and lowering the boom, racking up 2,488 penalty minutes. That’s 23rd all time.
He adopted the tough-guy role immediately in Ottawa. The other right wingers in 2001 were Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa and Martin Havlat. Neil certainly wasn’t going to steal their scoring-line minutes, so he embraced the checking line.
“You’ve got to be able to adapt, and for me I’ve always had that physical presence, even on the forecheck and stuff, not just fighting,” he said. “I’ve been able to chip in here and there with goals.”
His greatest memory is a goal scored in Buffalo, though not by him. Alfredsson found the net in overtime of Game Five of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals, sending the Sens to the Stanley Cup finals.
“It was ’07, but it doesn’t seem that long ago,” Neil said. “They say time flies, and it sure does. For me, when Alfie scored that goal to send us to the finals, that was exciting.”
He of course recalls a game in Buffalo a few months earlier. He bloodied Chris Drury with a blindside hit. Moments later, a 12-player brawl erupted that featured Buffalo’s Andrew Peters fighting goaltender Ray Emery.
“You go back to when we had the line brawl … those were good times,” Neil said with a gap-toothed grin.
William Carrier made his NHL debut in Ottawa earlier this month. He returned as Buffalo’s top-line left winger. He played with center Ryan O’Reilly and right wing Kyle Okposo.
“He’s demanded more ice time,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s done it with his play. He’s done it with his physicality. He’s done it with his energy level.”
The Sabres’ instructions when Carrier arrived were simple. They wanted him to play fast and physical. He hasn’t changed that mind-set as he’s changed lines.
“Coach is liking what I’m doing, so I’m just trying to bring that to their line,” Carrier said. “It’s always fun when people like the way you play, and I think I’m playing pretty good right now. I’m playing the style I wanted to play, and I’ll just keep going.”
Hockey Canada has invited 32 players to its world juniors selection camp, but no Sabres made the list. Defenseman Brendan Guhle and center Cliff Pu were believed to have a shot.
Sportsnet.ca dubbed Pu as the No. 1 snub of any player. Pu has 18 goals and 42 points in 23 games with London of the Ontario Hockey League.