Might this be the proverbial game-changer?
The Ottawa Senators have clearly been the second-best team in their conference semi-final playoff series against the high-powered Pittsburgh Penguins, but as they head home for the third encounter of the series Sunday (the Pens lead two games to none), there is bright sunshine on the horizon.
Injured centre Jason Spezza, who had surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back in early February, is set to make his return to the lineup.
Against a Pittsburgh team that is the deepest in the NHL at centre, the six-foot-three Spezza provides an imposing presence for the Sens’ under-manned and out-gunned forward corps, his slick puck-handling and cannon shot should also inject some creativity to what has been an offensively-challenged lineup.
“Hopefully I can just kind of help and add some excitement and bring some emotion. When you come back after a long time I think you can give a little bit of a jolt to the team and that’s what I’m hoping to provide,” Spezza said after a team practice on Saturday. “I think you try to harness it and use it more than anything. There’s going to be a little bit of excitement jitters and you just have to try and simplify the game probably early on too but I’m going to try and use my excitement and try to make it a positive and not be worried about the negative.”
Ottawa coach Paul MacLean wouldn’t reveal who Spezza’s linemates will be – although he did highlight his past chemistry with sniper Milan Michalek and bruising winger Colin Greening – and suggested he’ll be limiting the 29-year-old’s ice time to start.
But there’s no question Spezza will help the Sens’ power-play; absent a 6-1 pasting of the Montreal Canadiens in the first round where Ottawa scored three with the man-advantage, the Sens have scored only four times in six games.
MacLean said Spezza’s return amounts to “a huge, huge step. He’s a number one centre, and 80-point player . . . he can produce offence from anywhere on the ice, and our team doesn’t have that right now.”
The Pens are sensitive to that as well.
Pittsburgh defenceman Kris Letang, who will likely see a lot of Spezza, said the plan will be to try and keep the big centre under wraps early.
“It’s going to be important to be in his face right away,” Letang said.
The Pens also know whereof they speak when it comes to star players returning from injury.
Centre Sidney Crosby, who recently returned from a shattered jaw – with his previous history with concussions, he has become something of a comeback specialist – said Spezza will surely provide a big lift to a team already excited at playing before its home crowd.
“He creates a lot, so someone we definitely have to be aware of . . . he’s a great player, he’s going to help their team for sure,” Crosby said.
The superstar centre, who notched a hat trick in game two of the series, said it often takes time for players to recover their timing after a long layoff – he should know.
It’s something Spezza is sensitive to.
Though he’s made a full recovery from what had become a chronic back problem, he doesn’t expect to be playing at the top of his ability – especially as he joins a playoff series in mid-stream.
“You’re never going to be able to replicate playoff hockey physicality in practice but I’ve done quite a bit of bumping and quite a bit of whatever you can do one on one stuff down low I feel comfortable that way. But you can never replicate big open ice hits and stuff like that, you just try not to get hit I guess,” he said.
If centre Kyle Turris, the Senators’ de facto top centre since Spezza went out, was in any way ruffled about the prospect of seeing his ice time reduced, he did a virtuoso job of concealing it behind a broad grin.
“To have a guy like Jason come back, I’d happily have him take his spot,” he said.
Turris, brought in as the team’s second-line centre, said having to take a more prominent role in Spezza’s absence has allowed him to measurably improve his game – he has no difficulty applying those lessons in a lesser role.
According to MacLean, the Sens “need to win a game to make it a series,” and if they’re going to do that, they’ll need more from players like Turris and defenceman Erik Karlsson.
The Norris Trophy winner from 2012 – and another of Ottawa’s legion of players to have suffered calamitous injury this year – has slowed perceptibly in his last few games, even as he says he feels no ill-effects from his surgically repaired Achilles tendon.
No, Karlsson says, the problem is his decision-making and positioning on the ice.
“Physically I feel great, I move well outside the ice, I have no issues with anything I do, it’s just a matter of trusting in myself and believing that I can play almost the same way as I did before I got hurt,” said Karlsson, in what seems to be a tacit acknowledgment that he is not yet back to where he was.
The immediate answer, he said, lies in simplicity.
“I’m not playing the way I want to, I’ve got to play a little bit more poised with the puck and a little bit faster in our own zone,” said Karlsson, whose 15:37 in game two was the least time he’s spent on the ice since his rookie season. “I have to move my feet a little bit more and find the right position that I’m usually in. Right now it’s a little bit too much in-between and I can’t doubt myself.”
The Sens will also expect a bounce-back game from goaltender Craig Anderson, who was pulled in favour of rookie Robin Lehner after yielding three times on Friday.
Everything points to a raucous start on Sunday, and the Penguins are mindful of what will be required for them to grab a 3-0 stranglehold against a team whose hallmark is a refusal to quit.
“We’ll need to match their intensity early,” said Pittsburgh forward Pascal Dupuis, “that’s for sure.”