Jason Spezza provided a spark for the Ottawa Senators in his first ever playoff game in the NHL.
Then a teenager, Spezza scored a goal and added an assist with his team facing elimination against the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference final on May 19, 2003. The 3-1 victory in Game 5 kept the Senators alive and Spezza — who watched the first 15 games of that playoff run from the press box — was the offensive hero in the win.
Now exactly 10 years to the date of that memorable game, the Senators are once again turning to Spezza to give them an offensive boost. The star centre has been sidelined with a back injury since Jan. 27, but appears ready to return to the lineup for a crucial Game 3 on Sunday night. The Senators trail the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-0 in their best-of-seven series and another loss on Sunday would essentially put an end to their season.
“The doctors said everything is fine and I’ve put in the work. It’s not like I’m expecting to play out of the blue,” said Spezza. There’s been a lot of skating and a lot of build-up towards it and I think I’m ready to go.”
Spezza confirmed that he was medically cleared by doctors to return to game action for Sunday's game. He had a lengthy conversation with head coach Paul MacLean, who also confirmed that Spezza should be available for Game 3.
"We anticipate that Jason Spezza will be in the lineup tomorrow night and we're excited about the skill that he brings back to our team. We're looking forward to it," added MacLean.
Spezza underwent back surgery on Feb. 1 and the club was optimistic that he would be able to return to the lineup in early April. However, at some point in March that timeline was pushed back by a few weeks. Spezza has been skating for most of the past three weeks and increasing the intensity of his workouts. While the club was in Pittsburgh for the first two games of the series, he remained back in Ottawa to skate with the team's extra players.
"The obvious challenge is the speed of the game and hopping right back into the playoffs isn't easy," added Spezza. "You're never going to be able to replicate playoff hockey in practice, but I've done quite a bit of bumping. You can never replicate big open ice hits. I guess you just try not to get hit."
Spezza collected five points in the first five games of the season before experiencing back issues following a shootout loss to the Penguins on Jan. 27.
He finished fourth in league scoring last season and will certainly help the Senators with their struggling power play. MacLean said he anticipates putting Spezza on a line with Milan Michalek to start Sunday's Game 3.
"I think he's a world class player and he was probably our best player last year," said Erik Karlsson. "To get him back would help our younger players and our older players as well. We would get a little bit of a boost offensively."
The Penguins were anticipating the return of Spezza at some point during this series, so they are prepared to face the Senators best lineup in Game 3. And since they've met Spezza in the playoffs on three previous occasions, they are well aware of what he brings to the table.
"He's got a ton of skill and he creates a lot. He's someone we definitely have to be aware of," said Sidney Crosby. "Adding a player like Jason, he's a big part of their team. He's definitely going to give them a boost.”