OTTAWA - Jason Spezza's load got a little lighter Thursday night when he scored for the first time this season.
That helped to take some of the weight off a back that has given the Ottawa Senators centre trouble all year long. Too bad his load won't get much lighter in the coming weeks as he tries to convince Hockey Canada that he's deserving of a spot on the country's Olympic roster.
"It's obviously in the back of my mind and I'll have to get real hot real soon to get back on that radar," Spezza said Friday, the day after he returned to the lineup from sitting out the Senators' previous two games with a bad back.
Spezza scored the winning goal in Ottawa's 3-2 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in his return Thursday.
"I expect to score goals a little more regularly than that, so it felt good to get it going and hopefully I can get on a little bit of a roll here."
While it was a relief for Spezza to see the goal come after going his first 10 games without one, it wasn't as big a relief as he might have felt in the past.
These days, goals and points are much less the focus for a player who's trying to shake the one-dimensional label that's applied to his game for the first six seasons of his career.
"I've felt pretty good about my game, I just wasn't putting the puck in the net," he said.
Through the early part of the season, the 26-year-old has also given the Senators plenty to feel good about in a player they have US$41 million invested in over this year and the next five to be the No. 1 centre in the nation's capital.
Putting up points has never been a problem for the native of Mississauga, Ont., but he's often been criticized for not accomplishing much else.
So far, he's working harder, skating faster and committing fewer turnovers than in his previous campaigns.
"I felt like I wasn't hurting the team whereas in the past maybe, I would have been cheating on the offence trying to make up for games past," he said.
It's all part of Spezza's conscious effort to become a more complete player.
The realization he needed to change came when, after being a member of Canada's squad for the Turin Olympics in 2006, he wasn't on the list of initial invites to Hockey Canada's orientation camp in August.
While it wasn't a shock to any observers who felt Spezza to be too one-dimensional, or to lack the skating, strength or grit needed to compete with other potential candidates, the snub did come as a surprise to him.
When he was eventually invited after an injury ruled Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf out of the camp, Spezza took it as a wake-up call that maybe he needed work, after all.
Off the ice, Spezza's also made the effort to be taken more seriously, preferring to keep out of the cameras and away from reporters' microphones more than in the past. Where he used to be an easy and frequent quote for the media, he's just as likely now to quietly slip out of the dressing room unless specifically requested.
"Going to the camp and talking to different people there, it just kind of gave me new perspective of things I have to change in my game and to be more responsible," he said. "If I want to be a No. 1 centre in this league, I've got to work on faceoffs and be able to kill penalties occasionally and be able to contribute every night even when I'm not playing well offensively."
The improvement hasn't gone unnoticed.
When Spezza missed the two games preceding Thursday night's, coach Cory Clouston said he was missed, but not just in the offensive zone, where Spezza is finding chemistry with new linemate Milan Michalek, the left-winger acquired in Dany Heatley's trade to San Jose in September.
"Even if he's having an average game, he still is a presence, still is a threat," Clouston said of Spezza, who has 10 assists this season. "He needs to be respected by the opposition, he draws attention by checkers. Even when he's at his worst, he's still very effective, so you miss him in a lot of little areas."
Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said there's still room for improvement in Spezza's game, but to Ottawa's benefit, and perhaps Spezza's Olympic chances, he's headed the right way.
"He can still get better," Alfredsson said. "He's getting more and more experience doing different things on the ice.
"He's going in the right direction, obviously."