OTTAWA -- It is not a stretch to say that if Jason Spezza had never been forced to undergo back surgery Feb. 1 and miss three months of action, Ottawa Senators center Jean-Gabriel Pageau would have been lucky to play in the American Hockey League this season.
Now, Pageau is set to sit on the same bench as Spezza when the Senators take on the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
When the 2012-13 season began, Pageau's No. 1 goal was to play for the Binghamton Senators of the AHL. There was one piece of paper he wanted more than anything at the time: a letter from the Senators organization telling him to find a permanent residence in Binghamton.
He waited. Then he waited some more.
"It took two-and-a-half or three months before I got that letter," Pageau said Sunday. "So I just stayed at the hotel and I didn't know if they would send me back to junior or to the ECHL, I didn't know what was happening."
After the Senators eliminated the Montreal Canadiens in five games in the first round, Ottawa coach Paul MacLean was asked about the quick development of his players. One of the first examples he cited was Pageau.
"You look at Jean-Gabriel Pageau, he was a player that was going to play maybe in and out of the lineup in Binghamton," MacLean said at the time. "With the injuries that we had, now suddenly he's playing all the time down there for Luke Richardson and he learns how to play. Now he's playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and gets a hat trick; I mean, if you would have told us that Jan. 19, I would have said, ‘Are you crazy? That ain't happening.'"
Indeed, making the Binghamton Senators was all Pageau wanted for most of the year.
"I just wanted to stay in Binghamton," he said. "It was a good team for me and I got a lot better because of them."
Pageau also got a lot better, indirectly, because of the herniated disc in Spezza's back that forced the all-star center out of the lineup -- and he's not the only one suiting up for the Senators in Game 3 who could say that.
"Minutes-wise, things kind of stayed the same, but there were a few more important situations I was put in," Smith said. "When [Spezza] went out, Mika, Kyle [Turris], [Pageau] and myself all kind of took in a little bit of his ice time, and I think we've done well with it."
With Spezza back, Smith will move to right wing for the first time this season with Zibanejad and Chris Neil, giving MacLean a solid line with two centers who shoot from opposite sides, so he can have a strong-side faceoff man on either side of the ice.
But now that MacLean finally has all his star players in the lineup, the absence of Spezza has improved the depth throughout the lineup, with Pageau centering the fourth line after spending a lot of time in the first round centering the top line.
"They got to play more, so you develop quicker when you play more. They got to play bigger minutes when they shared those minutes that Jason used to eat up," MacLean said. "The more you play in the NHL, the better player you become, if you're a good enough player. These players proved they can play in the League, and having the opportunity to play more has made them better players sooner."
SOG: 15 | +/-: 6
"The guys that have come up and gotten chances have done a great job, they worked their rear ends off and helped this team win games to put us in this position," Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said. "We have learned a lot from what we've gone through this year, and going forward we have much more depth and the coaches have confidence in that depth. Some guys who had spots this year won't have spots next year, for whatever reason. But they know they played well enough that if anything happens, they'll be called up right away because the coaches believe in them."
One of those players Alfredsson was referring to as possibly not having a spot next season may be Pageau, considering how many levels he jumped this season alone. But Pageau is not thinking that far ahead, not even close.
He is living in the moment and relishing an opportunity to play on the same team as a world-class player like Spezza.
"I feel pretty lucky to be playing with him tonight," Pageau said.
The Senators likely feel pretty lucky themselves that a bad situation with injuries allowed them to find a player like Pageau.