It's official Sens fans.
It has been 50 games since Jason Spezza last suited up for the Ottawa Senators in a January 27 game against the Pittsburgh Penguins and, while his injury was later overshadowed by additional losses, the Sens soldiered on without their top scorer and left many wondering what they could be with the full complement on the ice.
Game 3 will be the first step towards finding out.
Spezza, and later Coach MacLean, confirmed that the plan is for the Sens top centre to join the lineup for the third game of their series with the Penguins. The injection of Spezza into the lineup immediately makes the Sens a more dangerous group. The league's fourth leading scorer from 2012 shuffles young players into roles that come with less scrutiny from the opposition and free up ice for the team as a whole.
He obviously won't be in top form in his first game back, but Spezza feels good to go to help the team.
"I've gone through a full recovery," said Spezza. "Obviously I've been off a long time, you're never going to be quite the same right away. I've put in the work so it's not like I'm expected to play out of the blue."
Rejoining the team after such a lengthy absence would not have been an easy task under any circumstances. To do it in the second round of the playoffs against the top seed in the conference makes things that much more difficult. At some point, however, practice isn't enough and you need to hop in the deep end.
The physicality will be the toughest adjustment as Spezza himself admitted. You simply can't replicate it in a practice setting. The context doesn't check out. Though, in the contact work Spezza has done he says he feels comfortable. As far as the big playoff hockey hits go, he says he'll "try not to get hit."
Hockey fans who have patiently waited to see him play will surely appreciate the effort.
As far as jumping into the speed of the game -- the playoff treadmill, as Coach MacLean once dubbed it -- the hope is adrenaline will bridge the gap for Spezza as he looks to reach playoff speed.
"The obvious challenge is the speed of the game and hopping into the playoffs isn't easy but I'm hoping that my excitement -- I've put in the work and it's been a long time coming -- I hope that excitement can help me get through and get things back as quick as possible. "
After a lot of time to watch this series from afar, the boost Spezza can bring to the lineup is not only limited to what he can do on the ice. His presence alone will impact every other player on the team in games and emotionally. He's hoping that impact will help tip the scales of the series back in the Sens' direction.
"They have some individuals who can really make plays. We can't give them anything for free. They're such good players we have to make them earn their offensive opportunities and hopefully I can help and add some excitement, some emotion," said Spezza. "When you come back after a long time you can provide a jolt to the team and that's what I'm looking to provide."
We won't know what type of tangible on-ice contribution Spezza can make until the puck is dropped and he's out there, but the signs are certainly encouraging. Milan Michalek will likely have his familiar centreman back, the power play has another key component return and players like Kyle Turris and Mika Zibanejad will still be afforded opportunities to play meaningful minutes against less dedicated matchups.
The culmination of these signs is a real opportunity for the Sens to turn things around despite being in a 2-0 hole.
There aren't a lot of true number one centres in the NHL, but the Sens have one about to make his return to the lineup. Fans may be almost as excited as he is.
"All you do as a kid is watch games and when you start playing that's all you know. To sit at home and watch playoff games is pretty tough. I'm excited to play again."
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