Chris Neil, traditionally, has been the kind of player you need in the playoffs. A gritty guy who you can depend on to get into the corners, dig around for a puck, wreak havoc in front of the net, throw a momentum-changing hit, or drop the gloves if need be.
Recently, though, he's been tremendously ineffective. The problems have been there all year, but they've been especially evident since Neil returned from his latest injury. Watching Thursday's game against Buffalo, Neil routinely shied away from hits, and was almost always outbattled in the corners. If blame is to be laid on any one player for the game-tying third goal against the Sabres, that blame lies with Neil.
Neil's stats line over the five games since he return tell much of the story: No goals, one assist, -2, 25 penalty minutes, and averaging less than 10 minutes a game. He's accumulated 13 hits in that time, which is pretty good, but he had zero in the most recent game against Boston. He's had three shots on net total.
I've really begun to notice that when Neil tries to provoke an opponent into taking a penalty, he often ends up getting called for one himself. Many questions arise: Is Neil happy with the team? Or his teammates (his scuffles with Ray Emery and Wade Redden earlier in the season come to mind)? With his role? Is he fighting a nagging injury? Is his mental game in it? Is he simply overcomplicating his game? I don't know the answers, but he'd better diagnose his problem and fix it before the playoffs come around. The Sens can't afford to be killing off stupid penalties or covering for Neil if he continues to lose battles.
If Neil fails to return to his old form, it begs a question in the off-season: What do you do with a $1.2M grinder who fails to grind?