He wouldn’t wish the pain on his worst enemy, he says, not even when the enemy is in the same building and dressing for the same, critical, Stanley Cup playoff game.
There were nights, Jason Spezza says, when his back was so bad he slept on the floor while Jenn stayed on the extra hard mattress they had purchased in the hope that it would help. He could not pick up their young daughters, Sophie and Nicola. The herniated disc tweaked his sciatic nerve to a point where, at times, his right leg turned so weak it felt like it belonged to someone else.
The last game he played, Jan. 27 against the same Pittsburgh Penguins that had his Ottawa Senators down two games to none heading into his Sunday return, he could not even sit on the bench in the third period, choosing instead to stand. The last shot he took that Jan. 27 game went in, a shootout goal that, unfortunately, still wasn’t enough to defeat the Penguins – just as this month’s Senators have not had enough going up against Sidney Crosby and his formidable teammates in the second round of the playoffs.
The back surgery was his second. Recovery had been slow last time and was slow and uneven this time. He exercised, stopped exercising, skated, stopped skating, skated again, cautiously returned to practice and eventually full practice before he and the team doctors determined he could try a real game, a playoff game.
There was one sweet coincidence to it. Ten years ago to the day he had played his first ever Stanley Cup playoff game, coming off the “scratch” list to score once and set up another as his Senators defeated the New Jersey Devils in a win they desperately needed to stay alive.
Just as a win was desperately needed this time. Go down three games to none and you may as well forget it. Win and you make it a series.
He hoped the 10-year anniversary might bring a little “karma.” He would need it, given the expectations that had been building concerning his possible return. A towering centre with hypnotizing hands, he would be expected to work his magic.
Ottawa has never been an easy town for creative players. For one thing, there are approximately one million general managers in the surrounding area who could put together a Stanley Cup team over a few beers if only they were given the chance. Secondly, it is a government town, conservative by nature, risk abhorrent. And third, because it is also a political environment, quick to flip-flop – a player like Spezza can be thrown under a bus one shift, given a new car the next.
They cheered his coming out for the warm-up, cheered his first shift 1:26 into the game. His old linemate Milan Michalek, who has struggled horribly this year without Spezza, was on one side, Cory Conacher, who has sputtered like an outboard with water in the line ever since arriving from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the trading deadline, on the other.
In the third period, with the Senators trailing 1-0, head coach switched the unproductive Conacher with Colin Greening, a big, swift winger who had a good Game 2 in Pittsburgh. Later still, bruising winger Chris Neil was put with Spezza in the hopes of opening up some space for the playmaker. Then Jakob Silfverberg….
But no Daniel Alfredsson on one side, Dany Heatley on the other as it was for those long periods a few years back when they were the most-feared scoring line in hockey. Alfredsson is still here, Heatley long gone, but MacLean elected not to put the two together until well into the first overtime.
The Senators’ concern ever since Spezza went under the surgeon’s scalpel is that they cannot score. They won games through goaltending (Craig Anderson) and some scrambling committee scoring, with not a single player standing out in the goal category all this shortened season.
If they could get this far without scoring….what could they do if Spezza’s playmaking and shooting abilities started producing some goals?
“He brings a part of the game that maybe we haven’t had all year,” goaltender Anderson said in the morning.
Anderson has also said repeatedly that “I can’t score goals” and rarely was this line more meaningful than Sunday, as Anderson played brilliantly but the Senators could not score until, with less than 30 seconds remaining and Ottawa playing shorthanded, Alfredsson tipped a pass past Pittsburgh goaltender Tomas Vokoun to force overtime.
“We built some confidence,” said Anderson when it was over. “We’re still learning. We just have to get better.”
Spezza began well, for one off nearly four months. He won his first faceoff easily, his second, his third and his fourth. He was 7-2 in faceoffs won and lost in the first period alone – a terrific sign in that the Senators are also weak, dreadfully so, at faceoffs.
“My intention,” he announced after the morning skate, “is to play well and to try to help as soon as I can.”
He would need time, though, time to get back into game shape, as he faded noticeably as the game went on and MacLean reduced his ice time.
“It was fun,” but conceded to being “a little tired” in the overtime, Spezza said after the game.
“I did some alright things and I’m sure I’ll get better.”
Fortunately, Greening bought him some more with the goal in the second overtime that gave the Senators a 2-1 victory and, as the saying goes, put them back in the series.
With a win, and with Spezza back, there is still hope.