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Spezza showing maturity for playoff-contending Sens

by Karl Samuelson
It's not always easy being Jason Spezza.

The 26-year-old Toronto native has his share of detractors despite averaging more than a point per game in the NHL and three consecutive 30-plus goal seasons.

When a player has the size of Jean Beliveau, the vision of Mario Lemieux and the puck-handling ability of Denis Savard, some people might expect a little more from you. But that doesn't keep Spezza awake at night. Not anymore.

Earlier in his career, the offensive dynamo got into trouble because of sloppy defensive play. Now he is relied upon in key defensive situations. Through equal measures of maturity and focus, Spezza now seems comfortable in all aspects of his game. The young veteran feels in the groove and things seem to be humming along on all cylinders.

"I feel pretty good right now," said Spezza. "The puck is going in for me. The team is playing real well. There's a good feeling around the rink. So things are starting to fall into place."

The first full season with Cory Clouston behind the bench and numerous roster changes have given the Senators a different character.

"We are a different kind of team this year," said Alex Kovalev, who joined the Senators as a free agent during the summer. "This is not a one-line team, which was the case in the past. Of course, fans are excited to see the team score a lot of goals in a game, but they're not seeing that in too many games this year. Instead, this year we have four lines that can score goals and do the job. We are really a complete team and we've proven that this year.

"I am trying to play more of a complete game. I am getting the chance to play in more situations which gives you the opportunity to be more physically involved in the game." -- Jason Spezza

"Nobody expected us to be such a complete team but we're proving it."

Spezza has been proving he doesn't need to ride shotgun with former linemate and 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley, who was traded to the San Jose Sharks before the start of this season.

"I had to become more of a shooter," said Spezza. "Dany is a natural goal scorer. A lot of times I was looking to set him up. Now I have to adjust my game a bit to shoot a little more myself and I have been trying to do that lately. I have been shooting the puck more since I came back from my injury (in mid-December) that put me out for 20 games. Sometimes you need to take a step away to see what you have to do differently."

Being a first-line center and improving his skill in the faceoff circle never is far from Spezza's mind.

"It's always still a work in progress, but I get put on the ice at the end of games now, penalty kills and taking draws, and that's what I always wanted," said Spezza. "This is the time of year when faceoffs become more and more important."

Earlier in his career, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound center primarily was known as a playmaker who could set up hard-driving wingers. Spezza now is becoming more of a physical presence who is capable of playing the game any way it is dictated.

"I am trying to play more of a complete game," said Spezza. "I am getting the chance to play in more situations, which gives you the opportunity to be more physically involved in the game."

The Senators missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 1996. While the perennial question earlier this season was whether the Senators would make the playoffs, the speculation now revolves around where they will finish among the top eight in the Eastern Conference. Boasting an 8-2-0 record in the 10 games prior to the Olympic break, some believe the Senators could win the Northeast Division.

"I am really excited about that possibility," said Spezza. "We have put ourselves in a real good position and it's exciting coming down the stretch. You get the feeling that everything is geared toward the playoffs now. We've got to peak at the right time. This is a fun time of the year to play. We got rid of the dog days, that 40-60 game range (in the schedule), and now we can get things going for the playoffs. It's a pretty exciting time of the year."

Spezza's affable, laid-back personality off the ice belies the competitive fire that burns within him. Even his detractors have been silent since his triumphant return in January after missing one quarter of the season with a torn ligament in his right knee. Spezza's game is revving up at all levels. And that comes as no surprise to those who know him best.

"Jason is a good player and has always been a good player," said Kovalev. "He has pride in his game and wants to be the best. I know how much he missed hockey when he was injured and he came back and scored so many goals and points and helped the team a lot. Jason takes great pride in what he does and that's why he performs so well."
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