OTTAWA -- The Ottawa Senators have worked all season long to get to this moment.
For the first time since Jan. 27, eight days into the 2012-13 season, the Senators will in all likelihood ice their full lineup Sunday with the expected return of top center Jason Spezza for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
"I've gone through a full recovery," Spezza said after taking part in the team's optional skate Saturday at Scotiabank Place. "Obviously being off a long time, you're never going to be quite the same right away. But the doctor's say everything's fine and I've put in the work. It's not like I'm expecting to play out of the blue. I've been putting in time here for a while, a lot of skating, a lot of build up towards [playing]. I think I'm ready to go."
With the Senators trailing the best-of-7 series 2-0, Spezza's return from back surgery could not come at a better time. No matter how long it takes him to shake the rust, Spezza should be able to have a positive impact on Ottawa's struggling power play and provide a good dose of offensive punch to a team that needs it.
"Any time you can add a player of Jason's ability that's a huge, huge step," coach Paul MacLean said. "He's a No. 1 center, he's an 80-point player, fourth-leading scorer in the League last year, he is very good on the power play and he can provide offense from anywhere on the ice. That's something that we don't have on our team right now, consistently."
Spezza's last game was Jan. 27 against the Penguins before going down with a herniated disc in his back and undergoing surgery Feb. 1 -- with an expected rehabilitation time of 12 weeks. A little over two weeks after the loss of Spezza, top defenseman Erik Karlsson went down, also getting hurt against the Penguins when forward Matt Cooke's skate lacerated his Achilles tendon. Eight days later, top goalie Craig Anderson severely sprained his ankle.
The Senators battled through each of those injuries as one by one their leaders returned, first Anderson, then Karlsson, and now, finally, Spezza.
"It was a collective effort from everybody on the team, and it was so much fun because on any given night everybody stepped up. It was [Jean-Gabriel] Pageau one night or [Zack Smith] the next, everybody kind of stepped up," said Kyle Turris, who stepped in as the team's top center in Spezza's absence. "I just tried to do my best to fill that spot. Some nights I did well, others not as well. The guys took a lot of pressure off me by everyone collectively working together to fill that spot."
If it's possible to benefit from going through the injury woes the Senators have overcome this season, Turris is one example of it. He was asked to play a bigger role and got better as a result. The same could be said of Pageau, Smith, Mika Zibanejad, Jakob Silfverberg, Eric Gryba, Patrick Wiercioch and others who were asked to provide more than might have been expected of them because of the injuries to Spezza and Karlsson.
With both star skaters now back, the Senators can reap the rewards of having their younger role players developing and improving.
"I learned a lot," Turris said. "I really learned a lot about my game, about how to play as a first-line center going up against other teams' shutdown pairings and how to be smarter about it, how to play a better all-round game, offensively and defensively, picking your opportunities. Things like faceoffs are huge. It was a great learning experience I'm very thankful I had the opportunity [to go through].
"I'm going to keep trying to improve and work on everything I learned, and use that in a different role. Going against different guys, I think it's going to help a lot."
Spezza said he doesn't expect to just jump into the action without having missed a beat, particularly in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But adrenaline can be an effective tool in situations like these, and Spezza is counting on that and the rush of playing in front of a home crowd will be enough to get him up to speed in a hurry.
"The obvious challenge is the speed of the game and hopping right into the playoffs isn't easy," Spezza said. "I've put in the work, it's been a long time coming and I hope the excitement can kind of help me get through to get things back as quick as possible."
There is the possibility a player can be too excited to come back, and that can sometimes be a detriment to how he performs on the ice. But Spezza prefers not to think of it in those terms.
"I'm going to try to use my excitement and make it into a positive and not be worried about the negative," he said. "Timing is going to be the toughest thing, I haven't practiced much with the team, I've been doing a lot of it on my own and more conditioning stuff. The timing will be one of the trickier things, but it's one of the better parts of my game so you hope that comes back pretty quick. You just go out and try to work hard and be smart. I expect to play well."
If he succeeds in showing he's capable of doing that early enough in Game 3, Spezza can expect to hear his number called on the Senators bench often. MacLean said he will be keeping a close eye on how Spezza performs early on in the game -- and if he sees he's adjusting well, he won't be afraid to give his top center the ice time to which he is accustomed.
"We usually try to gauge it on how he starts the game and how he gets along in the game," MacLean said. "If he gets along in the game well and things are progressing well we can get him into a regular routine. But if it's not, we kind of monitor it and back it off a little bit.
"Talking about it today, we don't anticipate he'll be in that 25-plus minute game [Sunday] night. A lot of it is going to depend on how much power-play time we have, that can have a big impact on how much he plays in the game. But we certainly feel he's going to give us some help on the power play for sure. He can help us quite a bit there."
The Senators could use the help; they are 1-for-7 in the first two games, including an 0-for-5 performance in Game 1 that was compounded by allowing a shorthanded goal to Pascal Dupuis in the third period that sealed the Penguins' 4-1 victory.
MacLean said Spezza will play with regular linemate Milan Michalek, who has struggled with two points in seven games while suspected to be playing through a knee injury. If Spezza can spark Michalek, it would almost be like adding two star players to the lineup at once.
But ultimately, Spezza is hoping his mere presence will be enough to inspire the Senators against a powerhouse Penguins team looking to take a stranglehold on the series.
"Hopefully I can help and add some excitement and bring some emotion," he said. "When you come back after a long time I think you can give a bit of a jolt to the team, and that's what I'm hoping to provide."
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