OTTAWA — Fresh off their first-round demolition of the Montreal Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators had a familiar face back in the fold on Sunday.
No. 1 centre Jason Spezza practised with his teammates for the first time since undergoing back surgery for a herniated disc on Feb. 1 and says it was nice to take another step in his recovery.
"It’s been a long process and a long season for me," Spezza said. "It felt good to join the team again and get some reps in. It may not seem like it and I may not play this year, but for me it’s a small victory."
Despite speculation that Spezza could be done for the season, the fact the 29-year-old took part in a full practice was encouraging.
Spezza, who had been skating on his own before joining the Ottawa's AHL callups for more training, says he had some "ups and downs" over the course of his recovery but made improvements over the last few weeks that allowed him to take part in a regular practice.
Whether or not he plays this season depends on how is body reacts. The Senators will take on the No. 1 seed Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs after Ottawa disposed of second-ranked Montreal in five games.
"I always felt there was going to be a light at the end of the tunnel and when that is I don't know," Spezza said. "But I'm going to keep pushing towards getting better so I can try to play."
The Senators' top centre played in just five games this season, scoring two goals and adding three assists, before being forced to have surgery.
Spezza last played on Jan. 27, coincidentally against the Penguins.
It's unclear whether Spezza will travel to Pittsburgh, but Senators coach Paul MacLean doesn't seem to have much hope he will play in the first two games of the series.
"He's a long ways away," said MacLean after practice.
On Saturday, the coach said he would love nothing more than to have Spezza back in the lineup, but if and when that happens he has to be able to slide right in.
"That's the important factor for me ... Jason has to be up to speed to where the team is playing," said MacLean. "And the treadmill goes pretty fast in the second round of the playoffs."
Spezza understands MacLean's thinking and says in no way does he want to be a hindrance to the team.
"As a player you have to be confident. The only way you're going to have any success if you come back to play is to be confident. I have to make sure I have confidence in myself that I'm going to help the team," he said. "The team has played real well and done real good things and the only way that I want to come back is if I feel I can help the team."
That's not to say Spezza wouldn't love to be a part of this second-round series.
"I wish I could play next game," he said. "It's all going to be how I respond. I have to push myself. That's why we're really going to try to push forward here the next three days and it might tell me it's not time to play or it might respond real well.
"I'd be lying if I tried to give you a straight answer on when I thought I would play."
Teammates were thrilled to see Spezza back on the ice and while they are tempering expectations, the Senators know he would bring a significant contribution to the lineup.
"You don't want to get excited too early, but at the same time if he's going to come back he's going to help us a lot," defenceman Sergei Gonchar said. "Overall he can help us creating offence."
The Penguins offer a different challenge than the Canadiens, but the Senators feel confident they match up well.
"We know we're in tough against a very good team," captain Daniel Alfredsson said. "But we definitely don't think it's a task that's impossible."
The series has added intrigue considering it was the skate of Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke that led to Erik Karlsson missing most of the regular season with a partially severed Achilles tendon.
"Whatever happened, happened and I'm back playing and I'm happy," Karlsson said. "It's not something I'm thinking about and I'm sure he's not thinking about it either."
Both Karlsson and MacLean say the incident won't be a distraction for the teams other than creating discussion for the next few days.
"We have to go out and play our best game if we want to beat Pittsburgh," Karlsson said. "They've had an unbelievable season so far and they have a great team and we've got to play our best to even have a chance.
"If we can find some consistency for 60 minutes in all the games we play I think we'll have a good chance."
The Senators watched with interest as the New York Islanders won two games against the Penguins and came close to forcing a Game 7.
"We're going to study it, especially the ones (the Islanders) won and figure out if they did anything that was surprising or different," MacLean said. "I think we have a good handle on Pittsburgh and how they like to play and it's just a matter of us sticking to it."
Notes: Pittsburgh was 2-0-1 against Ottawa in the regular season. ... Senators forward Milan Michalek was not on the ice at practice, but MacLean says it was just a maintenance day. Defenceman Patrick Wiercioch (lower-body injury) isn't expected to be ready for the start of the series.