The Ottawa Senators’ reward for winning their first-round playoff series may be getting star centre Jason Spezza back on the ice.
General manager Bryan Murray said Friday that Spezza has made progress in his recovery from back surgery and skated the last two days with the “Black Aces,” players called up from AHL Binghamton.
Murray hopes his first-line centre will be practising with the NHL team at some point during the Eastern Conference semifinals. But he said it’s too early to say when he will be ready to play in a game.
“Where he is as far as being game-ready, I’m not sure,” said Murray. “I think over the weekend probably he’ll continue to work hard and well see.
“I’d like to see Jason on the ice. He’s a good player. He’s an important player for us. He hasn’t played all year though. It’s a big step to throw him into a series where everybody’s been playing for a long time. I hope to see him at some point in round two. Whether that will happen or not, I don’t know.”
Spezza played only five games this season before he was sidelined with a back injury. He had surgery Feb. 1 on a herniated disc.
The six-foot-three Spezza is the most dangerous offensive threat on a team that struggled to score without him during the regular season. He had 34 goals and 84 points in 80 games last season.
The Senators got a boost when defencemen Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowan returned from long-term injuries just before the playoffs. They’ll certainly get another when Spezza is ready to play.
“Like the other players who were out for a period of time, it takes them getting on the ice with the group, getting involved, working hard,” Murray said. “Hopefully he’ll make himself available at some point for the coaches to decide if it’s time or not.
“I don’t pretend to know what that time is.”
The Senators; players were rewarded with a two-day holiday following their 6-1 victory in Montreal on Thursday night. That win cemented their best-of-seven opening series in five games and moved Ottawa into the second round for the first time since 2007 when it reached the Stanley Cup final.
Seeded seventh in the Eastern Conference, Ottawa still doesn’t know who its next opponent will be. If Pittsburgh defeats the New York Islanders on Saturday, the Senators will face the top-seeded Penguins.
The Senators relied on Craig Anderson’s stellar goaltending, strong play from their big defence corps and balanced scoring to defeat second-seeded Montreal.
It was a big victory on many fronts for Ottawa, where many Canadiens fans remain from before the Senators’ franchise began play in 1992.
“When you win a series, particularly against Montreal, a traditional top team, a team that in this market still has a big footprint, you feel good about yourself and you should,” said Murray. “I think the guys were very proud of being able to step up and beat the No. 2 seed in the East.
“We know we have a tough road ahead, but I hope there was a real sense that they did a lot and they’re now confident to step up the next time, whoever we play.”
The Senators were plagued by injuries this season, but coach Paul MacLean managed to get his club into the playoffs for a second straight season while using several callups from Binghamton.
Some turned in key performances, including centre J.G. Pageau, who had three goals in Game 3.
MacLean said it helped the new generation bond and earn the trust of the old guard led by a players like captain Daniel Alfredsson and defenceman Chris Phillips.
“Since I came here we had the ‘07 group led by Alfie and the veteran players, and we had the Bingo boys that won the (AHL) championship, and now they’ve won something together,” said MacLean. “They’ve won a playoff series together.
“They’re actually one group. There’s no separation amongst them.”
And the team’s progress suggests it could contend for years to come.
“Down the road, it’s only going to get better and better for our organization,” MacLean said. “You look at Jean-Gabriel Pageau, he was a player that was going to play maybe in and out of the lineup in Binghamton.
“With the injuries we had, now suddenly he’s playing all the time down there for (coach) Luke Richardson and he learns how to play. Now he’s playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs and gets a hat trick. If you would have told us Jan. 19, I would have said, ‘Are you crazy? That ain’t happening.’
“Eric Gryba, that ain’t happening. He’s not ready to play on our team. He needs to spend a whole season and a half more down there. But I think what we’ve proved is if you have good young players and you provide them with a good opportunity and a stable environment with a leadership group, that they can improve very quickly and they can play in the league.”
Murray said while some players are nursing bumps and bruises, the Senators look to have escaped the first round with no major injuries.