OTTAWA - It might be a lot to ask, but the Ottawa Senators are hopeful Jason Spezza will be just what they need to get back into their playoff series with Pittsburgh.
Spezza, who hasn't played since January 27 after undergoing back surgery for a herniated disc, will draw into Ottawa's lineup Sunday for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series that the Penguins lead 2-0.
"I'm excited to have a chance to play again," said Spezza. "I feel ready to play."
The 29-year-old will immediately add depth to a struggling offence and power play.
“We’re excited about the skill that he brings back to our team and we’re looking forward to it,”said Senators coach Paul MacLean.“We certainly feel that he’s going to give us some help on the power play for sure. He can help us quite a bit there.”
The Senators power play has gone 1-for-7 through the first two games and it’s clear they would benefit from Spezza’s abilities.
Spezza’s minutes will be monitored and MacLean eluded to the fact the amount could be higher or lower depending on the amount of power play time the Senators have.
Spezza is expected to line up with Milan Michalek and possibly Colin Greening.
Having Spezza back in the lineup gives the Senators offensive support, but almost more important is the emotional leverage it gives the team.
“He’s such a skilled playmaker that if you’re on the ice with him you know to keep your stick on the ice because he finds a way to get the puck to you,”said Zack Smith.“When you’re playing with guys like that you’re just more prone to go to the net and go to those areas and be more confident.”
While he’s ready emotionally and physically Spezza acknowledges that nothing he’s done can truly compare to the speed and physicality of a playoff game.
However, he's confident the work he’s put in has prepared him for his return, and that what he may lack in being game-ready will be made up by excitement and anticipation.
“I’m going to try to use my excitement and try to make it a positive and not be worried about the negative.”
Spezza acknowledged timing could be the biggest adjustment when he hits the ice, but is hopeful it comes back pretty quick.
“Basically I’m just going to go out and work hard and be smart,”said Spezza.“I expect to play well.
“I wouldn’t play unless I felt I could help the team and contribute.”
Spezza had two goals and three assists in just five games during the regular season.
Strangely enough Sunday marks the 10 year anniversary of Spezza's playoff debut where he had a goal and an assist in a 3-1 win for the Senators over the New Jersey Devils.
The Penguins know Spezza makes Ottawa a better team and while his return won’t alter their game plan they will be aware of his presence.
“It’s going to be important to be in his face right away and make sure he doesn’t have time and space,”said Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang.“He’s got good hands so he can make you look really bad so if you’re in his face and have a good gap you have a better chance of having success against him.”
The Senators are undefeated at Scotiabank Place in the playoffs this year and are hopeful to take advantage of home ice and a supportive crowd.
“We play well at home so our expectation is to play well,”said MacLean.“Our expectation is to give ourselves a chance to win. It’s up to us to make this a playoff series and we need to win a game to make it a series.”
In the first two games the Penguins have easily been the better team in the early part of the game and the Senators would love nothing more than to be able to come out hard and steal the momentum with a strong start of their own.
“We need to play to our identity,”said MacLean.“We have to try and establish our game first. What hurt us in the first two games is not getting off to a (good) start and we’re down in the first three minutes of both games and catch up hockey is losing hockey.”
With the return of Spezza and the home crowd behind them the Penguins know the Senators will be at their best.
“They’re going to be desperate and we know this is going to be the toughest test yet,”said Sidney Crosby.“We need to start well, but just a play a complete game and give ourselves a chance.”
Despite being pulled after allowing three goals in Friday’s game Craig Anderson will get the start for Sunday’s game.