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'Fire to play' helping Spezza work hard to get back in lineup

Despite being a healthy scratch to open the postseason, the veteran never stopped preparing to make a return

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

Jason Spezza has had plenty of practice time in recent weeks.

The man who had his first healthy scratch in more than a decade last season was sat out for four of the final 10 regular-season games and the first two games of the playoffs this year. So he made the most of the extra skating and worked on every aspect of his game.

He could be seen working passing drills with Andrew Cogliano, getting help from Stu Barnes with faceoffs, pushing Anton Khudobin and Landon Bow to get better in goal. It was an interesting glimpse into a one-time superstar who was gracefully dealing with some age-induced adversity.

"You can only control what's in front of you, and for me, it was having crisp practice days," said the 35-year-old center. "I picked a couple of things to work on and tried to help the guys with things I saw during the game, and you just prepare as if you're playing."

That work paid off Monday, as Spezza was inserted back into the lineup and had a solid game. He logged 14:26 in ice time, had seven shot attempts, and won 9-of-14 faceoffs. It was the kind of performance Spezza knew he could give.

It was the kind of performance that will put him back in the lineup for Game 4, coach Jim Montgomery said.

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"Jason Spezza is an incredible professional," Montgomery said. "He's had a great career, and he's been a dominant player in this league for years because of that. He's an incredibly intelligent hockey mind who understands the game and understands what he needs to do to help his team."

Spezza has definitely done that. He was the second overall pick in 2001 and has played 1,062 regular season games and tallied 915 career points. Among Stars players, he is tied for most playoff games at 70 with Cogliano.

But he's also in the final year of a contract that averages $7.5 million, and posted significantly decreasing numbers his past two seasons. A point-a-game player when he joined the Stars in 2014, Spezza had 26 points in 78 games last season and 27 in 76 games this year.

Bottom line, finding the right fit for him on a team that is pushing for speed and defense has been a challenge. Yet, he led the NHL in faceoff winning percentage at 58.2 percent and also was fourth on the Stars in power-play scoring with 12 points, so he does have a place.

"I'm not going to offer speed or a lot of physicality, which is what people seem to want these days, but I can do other things like handle the puck and win faceoffs," Spezza said. "So that's what I work on."

He still has great hands and he shows that not only in games, but in practices. He constantly is working to hone his abilities and make his decisions second nature.

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"I hadn't played in a while, and I felt I still had good poise with the puck," he said of his return in Game 3 Monday. "That's why you do all of the drills, to have poise in the game situation and not be overwhelmed by the speed."

Stars captain Jamie Benn said Spezza definitely contributes poise.

"He adds a lot of skill and great leadership. He's a smart player who's been around for a while and knows how to read the game, and that helps us a lot," Benn said. "When you're going through intense moments in the playoffs and there's a lot going on out on the ice, it's good to have that experience and calm.

"He's definitely a guy who is not scared of the pressure."

That doesn't mean he's not scared. Spezza said he knows the challenges he faces at this stage of his career and is working hard to handle them. He said he talked to former teammates like Chris Kelly and has received some good advice on what to do when you're not playing every game.

"It's a different feeling when you're out of the lineup and you want to be in," he said. "It's a lonely feeling, and to talk to people who have gone through it, it definitely helps you stay focused and stay on task."

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The former Ottawa Senators captain said it's also good to understand the dynamic of how a team works so that he can find different ways to help.

"I've been `the guy' on my teams for so long, and when you're like that, you appreciate when the depth guys or old guys put everything into their preparation," he said. "I've always been big into the culture of my teams, propping everybody up and making everybody feel included.

"Even though I was disappointed, I felt an obligation to the group to be a good teammate and stay ready, and if I got my number called, be sure I was ready to go."

And no matter where the playoffs go from here, Spezza said he will continue to embrace that mentality.

"You have to have belief in yourself, and yet you also have to know that things aren't going to go your way at times," Spezza said. "Sports will beat you up and they'll test your mind. If people tell you that you can't play, well you should keep trying.

"For me, I still have the fire to play and I want to play, and that's what makes it easy for me to show up and work hard."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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