Spezza back at practice, but proceeding with caution

As Jason Spezza held court in front of his locker stall Sunday, wearing an ear-to-ear grin after his first practice with his Ottawa Senators teammates in 15 weeks, he was trying his best to curb lofty expectations.

Spezza back at practice, but proceeding with caution
Ottawa Senators practice at Scotiabank Place Sunday in preparation for round two of the Stanley Cup playoffs against Pittsburgh - Jason Spezza (Julie Oliver/OttawaCitizen)

As Jason Spezza held court in front of his locker stall Sunday, wearing an ear-to-ear grin after his first practice with his Ottawa Senators teammates in 15 weeks, he was trying his best to curb lofty expectations.

Spezza is making no promises about when — or even if — he’ll return to the lineup against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the NHL playoffs.

Still, after feasting on a daily diet of frustration for so long, he acknowledges it’s “a small victory” to have recovered enough from his back disc surgery to take part in a full team workout.

Spezza says there’s no set timetable for a return to game action and it remains undecided whether he’ll even travel with the team to Pittsburgh for the start of the second round. He has been back skating for the past two weeks, including several days with the team’s reserve players.

“I want to play, I want to back out there,” he said. “I don’t want to have any pain. I wish I could the play the next game. It’s all going to be about how I respond. I’ve got to push myself. That’s why we’re really going to try and push forward in the next three days. It might tell me that it’s not time to play and it might respond real well, but I would be lying if I tried to give you a straight answer (on a return date).”

The club’s No. 1 centre, who finished fourth in NHL scoring last season with 34 goals and 50 assists in 80 games, acknowledges he may not be 100 per cent recovered if he jumps aboard the Senators’ playoff train. Yet, considering the Penguins are loaded with the offensive talent, including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, James Neal, Brenden Morrow and Kris Letang, it would be a huge bonus for the Senators to have more offensive touch in their lineup.

“Different circumstances happen at different times and the playoffs can sometimes be an (unusual) circumstance, so maybe you push yourself and do things you might not normally do.

“So I will skate here a few more times first and we’ll see how it goes,” he said. “As a player, you have to be confident. I have to have confidence in myself that I’m going to help the team. The team has played real well and done good things.”

Providing Spezza’s body holds up reasonably well in the tough practices, there will be serious discussions involving himself, coach Paul MacLean and general manager Bryan Murray about when to throw him into the heat of the post-season. MacLean, however, was downplaying talk of a speedy return Sunday, saying Spezza was a long way from returning and only at the beginning of the recovery process.

Somehow, thanks to stellar goaltending and sound defence, the Senators made the playoffs without a first-line centre.

Spezza’s absence proved that the team has no other centre who can deliver anything close to the same level of consistent offence. While the Senators exploded for 20 goals in their five-game elimination of the Montreal Canadiens, that’s misleading because they turned a pair of close games into romps with late third-period goals. He could make a huge difference to the Senators’ power play, which was a dysfunctional mess against Montreal and in the final few weeks of the regular season.

“I know how he feels exactly,” said defenceman Jared Cowen, who returned from hip surgery in the final weeks of the regular season. “He said the pace felt fast, but he’ll get back out there. He’s a special player. It’s going to take time, but he’ll pick up.”

Spezza has played only five games this season — his last game was on Jan. 27 against Pittsburgh, three weeks before Matt Cooke sliced Erik Karlsson’s Achilles — and his rehabilitation has been an exercise in frustration. It was originally hoped that Spezza could be back by early April following the surgery on Jan. 30, but there have been setbacks along the way.

“By no means, at this time of the year, are we going to get into what has gone on,” he said. “There will be lots of time after the season where we can go over the timeline stuff.”

He admits to down moments — “some days when you’re going through rehab and watching TV at home and watching the guys go through the ups and downs of a season” — but says he always had hope.

“I’m a pretty motivated guy and I always felt there was going to be light at the end of the tunnel for me,” he said.

Watching his teammates find a way to survive the injuries and then watching as goaltender Craig Anderson, Karlsson and Jared Cowen all return from their own injuries helped.

“I’m really proud of the guys,” he said. “I talked to a some of them going into the first round, just about how admirable a team they are. It’s really the true essence of a team, the fact the guys have picked each other up and when guys have gone down.”

kwarren@ottawacitizen.com
Twitter.com/Citizenkwarren

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