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Spezza soaring to new heights

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
It’s quickly becoming a milestone kind of season for Jason Spezza.

The 200th career assist is already in the bank. He’s just five points shy of 300. And, with a torrid streak of seven goals in the Ottawa Senators’ past seven games, No. 100 in that category is a mere seven away now.

Listen closely and you’ll hear the growing sentiment: Spezza is enjoying the best stretch of hockey in his still-young National Hockey League career.

“He’s on a real roll right now,” Senators head coach John Paddock said of his No. 1 centre, who’s motored back up into the top 10 in NHL scoring (11 goals, 31 assists) after missing six games with a groin injury and rates No. 4 in the league in plus-minus (+19).

“(Spezza) is still on the rise in his career, despite what he’s done and how many points he’s produced. He’s still going to get better. That’s a great thing for us.”

Dany Heatley knows better than any Senators player how well Spezza can play – he’s posted back-to-back 50-goal seasons as his linemate. But even he admits the 24-year-old centre has taken his game to a new level.

“It took him a few games after he came back from the injury to get his game back,” said Heatley on Friday, as the Senators began preparations for Saturday’s home matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200). “But I think he’s definitely at the top of his game this season … and he had a great two years before this.”

After starting the season with just one goal in his first 10 games, Spezza has been on a tear lately with goals in five of the Senators’ last seven games. Known primarily as a playmaker for most of his career, the NHL's assists leader said he’s aiming more at the net himself this season.

“All season, I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to shoot more,” said Spezza, the NHL’s current leader in points per game. “It was a little frustrating at the start of the year when I went nine games without scoring, and felt I was shooting the puck well and it just wasn’t going in. But more than anything, I just stuck with it.

“The puck always seems to find its way into the net in bunches for me … I was struggling a bit and now I hope I can make up for it by putting a few more in a row in here.”

The Senators, meanwhile, don’t want to be slipping into any kind of a bad spell heading into the Christmas break. After reeling off six straight wins, the Eastern Conference leaders (22-8-3) stumbled in Thursday’s 3-2 loss in Atlanta.

On the plus side, though, is the potential return of centre Mike Fisher, who’s missed the last two games with a strained oblique muscle. Fisher took part in a full practice Friday but said he won’t decide his status for Saturday’s game until after the morning skate.

“It’s come a long way this week. I’m happy with the way it’s going,” said Fisher. “If the skate goes well (Saturday), I’d like to play. But we’ll see how it feels. It’s starting to feel pretty good. It’s not perfect, but it feels good.”

Saturday’s game also marks the return of Martin Havlat to Scotiabank Place. The flashy forward was dealt to the Blackhawks as part of a three-way trade with the San Jose Sharks back in July 2006. But the Hawks haven’t played in Ottawa since then.

“Marty had great years here and is an exciting player,” said goaltender Ray Emery, who’ll make his first start since Dec. 12. “I’m sure the fans will appreciate what he did here … It should be a good night for him.”

Paddock also has his thoughts pointed toward young Chicago phenoms Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the top two rookie scorers in the NHL.

“They’re doing for Chicago what (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin did last year in Pittsburgh,” said Paddock. “You put two highly talented guys like that together and it revitalizes the franchise with their energy and their ability on the ice.

“We’re going to give those two kids the same respect we give Crosby and Malkin … we’ll be aiming to stop them.”

Fewer than 100 tickets remain for the game.

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