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Spezza has become invaluable for Stars

Center provides leadership, remains productive despite adjusted role after trade from Senators

by Amalie Benjamin @amaliebenjamin / Columnist

DALLAS -- Inside the Dallas Stars dressing room, Jason Spezza is singing. He's not just mouthing the words, or half-singing his way through the verses. No, he's singing, full-on belting it out. All he's missing is a hairbrush held under his mouth or a shower stall or a car radio blaring.

Next to him, Ales Hemsky is singing too, though softer, a bit more self-consciously.

"You're still the onnnnnne…" he croons, a smile lighting his face, a giggle on the verge of breaking through.

The music is turned up. The song must finish. The media, assembling in the Stars dressing room in advance of a Game 4 that could turn their season and this series, must wait. There is Shania Twain to sing, to appreciate, to call to mind schoolboy crushes and, yes, maybe a (perfectly understandable) fascination that persists into the 30s.

Spezza is comfortable. That much is clear. It hasn't always been so.

It was a rocky entry to Dallas, with everything that happened with the Ottawa Senators, the words said and unsaid, and the specter of a trade request that was eventually granted on July 1, 2014. This was a new city, a new team, a new role. There was a disappointing start, a seven-game losing streak and expectations of a team that, when it was all over, finished sixth in the Central Division and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Video: DAL@MIN, Gm6: Spezza adds to lead in 1st period

That all feels so long ago as the Stars sit here, in the Western Conference Second Round, one defeat away from a summer vacation that would be earlier than they had hoped. They are down 3-2 in their best-of-7 series against the St. Louis Blues with Game 6 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS) on Monday.

But, if the way the team acted before Game 4 while down 2-1 to the Blues is any indication, the team will not be tight. Spezza and the Stars will be loose, relaxed, and, quite possibly, singing.

The road had ended. Spezza saw what was ahead in 2014-15 for the Senators, a season of rebuilding and uncertainty. With his contract set to expire and a team that might need to get something for him, he decided that it was time to leave Ottawa, the only team he had ever known, the team he had captained.

Spezza didn't quite want it to happen the way it did, though he understands. As he said Friday, "Breakups are never easy."

"It was just, time was up," Spezza said. "They were going through a transition. I wanted to move on, instead of having a year where you go through a year of will you get traded, will you not get traded, are you signed, are you not signed. With my age, it's a waste to have a year like that."

But then it became public, complicated and emotional. It got messy.

It led to Dallas, a place that presented Spezza with a whole new vision of hockey, a transition for him and his family. He had felt like he was in a rut and this was his chance to rejuvenate his game and win. It was his chance to return to the postseason with regularity, though it didn't exactly work that way in his first season. It had been a long time since the Senators were a real factor in the playoffs, making it as far as the second round only once in Spezza's final seven seasons after they lost in the 2007 Stanley Cup Final. He was about to turn 24, back then.

Spezza is aware enough of his age, impending birthday and that he refers to himself as 33, already adding an extra year that he doesn't earn until June. Until, he hopes, the time that the Stars are playing for the Stanley Cup.

"I still feel like I've got some good years left and I think I've been able to show that," Spezza said. "You want to make sure you're playing on a team where you have a chance and, not that Ottawa doesn't have a chance, I think they have a good core, but I think it was just time for maybe a changing of the guard there a little bit."

So, there it was. A new adventure. A new team. A new opportunity. A city that's a little out-of-the-way in hockey terms. As Spezza said, "The glare was all I knew. Like I'm from Toronto, I got drafted by Ottawa. I didn't really even know this existed, that you could have a little more anonymity."

But, even without the glare, Spezza was entering a different world, one that promised discomfort, adjustment and question marks. He was the new kid. He needed to figure out his place.

When Spezza got to Dallas, it was all about change. He was not going to be the player who had done everything, at all times, in all situations, for the Senators. He believed in his abilities and talents, but saw players ahead of him. He had been a top-line player. He was now a second-liner.

Video: MIN@DAL, Gm5: Spezza beats the left pad of Dubnyk

That could have been jarring. Could have been difficult. And it was, to start.

"We were asking him to play in a role he probably hadn't played in before, play underneath a Tyler Seguin and sometimes play right wing, sometimes play center," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. "I think he struggled with that for a little while, but he really bought into what we were trying to do and where we're trying to play him.

"And I think he's just started to thrive, to get this number of minutes, he's not going to be a 21-, 22-minute guy. I think he had a heck of a year for where we had slotted and how we wanted him to play."

Spezza averaged 17:13 of ice time last season and 16:31 this season. Each are Spezza's lowest totals since his second year in the League (2003-04), when he played fewer than 15 minutes per game in his first full season in Ottawa after being selected No. 2 in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.

"It took me a little bit to come to grips with [the fact that] I'm going to play less minutes and my role was going to be a little bit different," Spezza said. "And it's kind of what I thought I needed to be on a team to have a chance to win with the depth in the league. So even though it's what you want and what you expect, when it happens it takes a little growing pains to go through.

"You're used to being the guy for everything - taking every draw, going out killing penalties. And when you're not doing that, maybe you question sometimes - but I think Lindy's been great with me. We've communicated well. He's pushed me and he's got me to a place now where I'm happy with my game and I really feel like I know what he wants me to do."

Spezza's productivity has remained high with 62 and 63 points in his first two seasons in Dallas. Not as high, mind you, as some of his best years in Ottawa when he topped 90 points twice, but he managed 17 goals in a transition year and 33 this season, one off a career-high he set three times previously.

"There's two things that [have] got to happen: To get the buy-in, he's got to have success," Ruff said. "The team has to have success because there's no buy-in without those two pieces. You have to be successful as a team, otherwise the player will think he's being misused. He has to be successful where you use him or he'll think he's being misused.

"We had both those things going in the right direction this year. Those things have to happen at the same time or you end up battling with a player or he feels that this isn't the way I should be used."

If this season didn't prove it, the playoffs did. Spezza is tied for fourth in NHL playoff scoring with 12 points. Nine of those, however, came in the first round against the Minnesota Wild. The center has tailed off in the second round with just three against the Blues in a series that has been tighter.

Still, Spezza is among the League leaders, behind only teammate Jamie Benn (14), and San Jose Sharks center Logan Couture (13) and defenseman Brent Burns (13). He also has an assist in each of the past three games.

But the Stars need more. They need more from Spezza and Benn as they try to prevent elimination Monday.

Video: MIN@DAL, Gm1: Spezza uses great fake to beat Dubnyk

They need Spezza to score and lead, even if he isn't one of the most notable Stars, ceding the spotlight to Benn, the injured Seguin and three-time Stanley Cup winner Patrick Sharp. Despite being the highest-paid player with a $7.5 million annual salary cap charge, the glare is no longer quite so bright. His role is no less difficult, no less nuanced.

"I think that's part of my job is to sense the temperature of the room a little bit at times," Spezza said. "And if we need to get riled up a little bit, I think you have to try to talk more and get guys riled up. Sometimes you can tell that everybody's wound up and you've got to try to relax a little bit.

"We all feel the pressure of these games. We all want to do well. We all want to win. You get down in a series, you sense the urgency of the next game, but sometimes you have to check the temperature of the room and see what you think you need."

As Benn, the team's captain, said, "When he talks, the guys will listen."

The Stars could be out of the postseason by Monday night. They could be packing up their things, heading home, disappointed and bowed. Or they could find new life. They could tie the series and send it back to Dallas for a Game 7 at American Airlines Center on Wednesday.

If they do, Spezza will be there, trying to apply the right pressure on his teammates, finding the balance between focused and loose, between the right way and the wrong way, and maybe, yes, playing a little Shania to get them there.

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