OTTAWA - For the slumping Ottawa Senators, the sight of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza practising together Wednesday was a sight for sore eyes.
Ottawa has struggled without the all-star contributions of Heatley and Alfredsson and the Senators now have several teams closing in on them for top spot in the Eastern Conference.
However, Heatley expects to play Thursday against the Florida Panthers following a quicker-than-expected recovery from a separated shoulder. Alfredsson, who has been nursing a hip flexor injury, could soon follow in a return that can't come quick enough.
"It'll give us a little jolt in the lineup," said Spezza, in somewhat of an understatement for a club that's won just three of its past 11 games.
"Anytime a team's struggling, it's nice to get guys in the lineup and I'm sure if Heater comes back tomorrow and feels good after today, then he'll be full of energy," Spezza said. "It felt good in practice to move the puck around a little bit, we made a few plays. It's fun to play with those guys when they're in the lineup."
Heatley has been out since he injured his right shoulder in a Jan. 12 victory over the Detroit Red Wings. He was originally expected to be out up to six weeks, so his recovery is well ahead of schedule.
"(The shoulder) felt really good right away after the first couple of days and we were able to do a lot of treatment and a lot of exercise on it early and get it strong," said Heatley.
The left-winger had 25 goals at the time of his injury and looked to be a good bet to make a run at 50 for the third straight season.
The Senators dropped a 4-3 decision to Montreal on Tuesday and are just one point ahead of the surging Canadiens. Heatley said he's looking forward to helping the team get back on track.
"It's always tough to be out watching games," he said. "It's an important time of the year.
"I want to get back in and like the rest of us, get out of this slump."
Alfredsson, a right-winger, picked up his injury against Carolina on Jan. 17 and missed two games, then returned for three games before missing the past three.
The Senators have lost all six games that their captain has missed this season. Over the past two seasons, Ottawa is 1-10 when he doesn't play. Alfredsson is hoping to return Saturday when the Canadiens visit Scotiabank Place.
"I wish I would play tomorrow, but the way it's going is encouraging and I'm hoping for Saturday," Alfredsson said. "There's still a bit of limitation in certain movements that I do and that I'm not totally comfortable with."
Alfredsson pointed out that the Senators weren't playing all that well before he and Heatley were hurt. Even just the return of Heatley will be a welcome one, and not just by centre Spezza, who had 53 points in 37 games playing alongside Heatley and only nine in the 11 games while lining up with various combinations.
In the past 11 games, Ottawa has scored 31 goals, but 16 of those came in the three games that Alfredsson returned for before aggravating his hip injury.
Spezza hopes the team gets a boost this week.
"It's good to have a little extra jump in the step," Spezza said. "We're talking about guys coming back, not talking about guys out of the lineup. . . . anytime you're struggling, a little bit of positivity doesn't hurt."