OTTAWA - Jason Spezza appears ready to return from his groin injury but he won't necessarily be rejoining Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson on the Ottawa Senators' explosive first line.
The Sens have continued to roll during the star centre's six-game absence and head coach John Paddock may be reluctant to shake things up against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night. He also likes splitting up his top unit on occasion and Spezza's first game since Oct. 27 - barring any setbacks - may provide more opportunity for that.
"It's not like it's a bad thing that they play together, I don't mean that at all," Paddock said after practice Tuesday. "But I think there's an advantage to them playing with somebody else."
Spezza has been miserable watching the Senators improve to an Eastern-Conference leading 14-2 without him - "just sitting around watching isn't all that fun," he said - so just returning to the ice will provide him with some relief.
But given his choice, he'd rather be right back providing the ammo for sniper Heatley, who he's helped to back-to-back 50-goal seasons.
"Obviously, I'd prefer to play with the same guys all the time and just get used to them," said Spezza. "I think me and Heater work well together. I like having the puck a little bit and he likes scoring goals and shooting one-timers."
Mike Fisher stepped up into Spezza's spot on the top line and hasn't looked out of place. The Senators have gone 5-1 in Spezza's absence. Partly through his own request, Spezza has skated with a different combination of players at practice.
"We'll see what John has us do the first couple of games and what he does with the lineup," said Spezza. "If he keeps them together, I've got no problem with that.
"John seems to think that it keeps us honest a little bit by not relying on each other and by splitting us up a little bit. I think at times, maybe you can get into a little bit of rut when you rely on the other guy to play well if you're having a bad game, so I think he likes to mix things up."
Heatley, who has just one goal in his past eight games, would probably be thrilled to reunite with Spezza. Heatley's eight goals and 19 points through 16 games are still good, but projected over the course of the regular season, he'd barely break the 40-goal mark and would fall short of the 100-point mark for the first time since joining the Senators.
Heatley left practice without speaking to reporters, but Paddock was quick to defend his play, saying that the sniper becomes a more complete player away from Spezza.
"I think he moves and plays a little bit different game rather than waiting for the puck," Paddock said of Heatley. "That's why I said (earlier in the season) periodically, I'd split them up."
Heatley proved just how strong an all-around game he could play last season when, with Spezza out for a stretch in December and January, he had a huge hand in lifting the Senators out of a season-long slump and turning the team around for a strong second-half finish.
Without Spezza, Heatley has been producing in different ways.
Although he just has the one goal since Spezza went down with the injury, he's become the provider with seven assists, mostly for Alfredsson, who has six goals in the past six games.
"He's a dish man," Spezza joked. "He's making pies and passing. I said, 'I want some of those when I'm in the lineup, too."'