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'Special' playoff debut set Spezza on path to success

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Senators centre Jason Spezza made a splashy playoff debut back in 2003, scoring a goal and assisting on the game-winner in a season-saving win over the New Jersey Devils (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).

The path to greatness, it might be suggested, often comes from humble beginnings.

But for Jason Spezza, there was nothing ordinary — not in any way, shape or form — about the stage upon which he made his Stanley Cup playoff debut. And it proved to be a springboard for the Ottawa Senators centre to help build himself into the elite performer that he is today.

Even nine years later, the excitement in Spezza's voice is palpable as he describes the night of May 19, 2003, when then-Senators head coach Jacques Martin tapped him on the shoulder and inserted the teenager into the Ottawa lineup with the team's season hanging in the balance. The Senators trailed the New Jersey Devils 3-1 in the Eastern Conference final and were one loss away from elimination as they hit the ice at Scotiabank Place (then the Corel Centre) on that late spring evening.

"I was excited," Spezza said in recalling the moment after Senators practice earlier today. "I felt like it was a great opportunity to make an impact. For me, it was a real exciting moment and, more than anything, I was pumped to be playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs."

The second overall pick in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft jumped all over that opportunity, drawing an assist on the eventual game-winning goal by Martin Havlat before adding the insurance marker himself in a 3-1 victory that sent the series back to New Jersey. Chris Phillips' dramatic overtime goal at the Meadowlands two nights later forced the conference final to the limit before the Devils broke the Senators' hearts with a goal in the dying minutes of Game 7 in Ottawa.

For Spezza, that spectacular playoff debut — he was named the game's first star — remains an indelible career memory to this day.

"Definitely, it was special for me," he said. "I hadn't had any (National Hockey League) playoff experience and I had a chance to come in at home, score a goal, get an assist and win a big game that got us back into the series. Then Philly scored in overtime and it definitely felt like something magical was happening. It's too bad we lost in Game 7."

But the lessons that served Spezza so well on that first playoff night are the kind he still carries with him to this day. When the Senators roared to the Stanley Cup final in 2007, it was Spezza leading the charge with 22 post-season points (tied for the most in the playoffs that year with linemates Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley).

If the Senators are to upend the favoured New York Rangers this year in a first-round series that begins Thursday night at Madison Square Garden (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200), there is no doubt Spezza will have plenty to do with it. His 84 points, including 34 goals, ranked fourth in NHL scoring this season and inspired talk that the 28-year-old Toronto native deserved consideration for the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player.

"You draw from all your experiences ... wins, losses," Spezza said of a mindset that, nine years later, still continues to be important to his success. "I think I came into that game (in 2003) and I was confident in my abilities and didn't know what to expect. You just let the instincts kick in and that's what you try to do as a player.

"Everything you do is preparing yourself for the big moments. So if you put the work in, when you get to the big moments, you don't have to change too much. That's what I've always tried to do as a player."

Around the boards

For Long Island native Matt Gilroy, the matchup with the Rangers — and the first two games in particular at Madison Square Garden — represent a homecoming of sorts. "It's an exciting place to be and I've seen hundreds of events (there)," the Senators blueliner said of the building that bills itself as the World's Most Famous Arena. "Hockey games, basketball games, the circus ... I've been to everything there. It's like going home to me." Gilroy started his NHL career with the Blueshirts and still has several "good buddies" on the team. "A lot of relationships there," he said. "But it's playoff hockey (now). It's actually more exciting to go against friends and, hopefully, I get bragging rights in the summertime." ... Centre Jim O'Brien left practice early today after taking a puck off the hand. "We'll evaluate it," said head coach Paul MacLean. "I didn't think it was anything drastic, so we'll see." ... MacLean expects blueliner Matt Carkner (lower body) to return to practice Wednesday ... Senators prospect Jakob Silfverberg notches two goals and an assist as Brynas IF dumped Skelleftea 6-3 in the opening game of the Swedish Elitserien's championship series. Silfverberg, a second-round pick (39th overall) by Ottawa in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, now has 16 points (9-7) in 12 playoff games. Game 2 of the final is Thursday at Brynas' home rink in Gavle.

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