Jason Spezza has endured a difficult and eventful 22 months. But the skilled Ottawa Senators centre has skated and dangled through the turmoil and may be playing his best hockey these days.
He and his No. 8 Ottawa Senators will begin their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series against the No. 1 New York Rangers on Thursday, and few are playing better than Spezza entering the playoffs. Spezza scored five goals and nine points in his final seven games, even though his close friend, Canadian ski-crosser Nick Zoricic passed away in a competition in Switzerland on Mar. 10, and his wife Jennifer gave birth to the couple's second child, Nicola, on Apr. 1.
"It's been tough losing a great friend," Spezza said on Monday. "But it was great to welcome a new baby in my life. It's a joy to come home every day. The guys have been real supportive.
"As hockey players, you're lucky because your teammates become your family. When you go to the rink for your four hours it can be an escape from reality. I focus on what I have to focus on. I have been able to separate my hockey life from my home life better than ever and use it as a strength this year. I have been able to get through the tough times because of my teammates."
At 28, Spezza has exhibited a newfound maturity on and off-the ice. He has significantly reduced the number of turnovers he committed and he has been a leader in the dressing room. Senators' GM Bryan Murray likens Spezza's improved persona as taking an ownership stake in the team.
There was plenty of speculation that Murray was going to trade Spezza in the days leading up to the 2010 NHL entry draft in late June, especially when Murray revealed that his slick centre was open to changing addresses back then. This development arrived after a 57-point season from Spezza.
The situation didn't improve much a year ago when his production stagnated and the Senators had just completed their worst season since 1995-96. Spezza simply wasn't on the same page as ousted coach Cory Clouston.
But Murray had a talk with Spezza and the hiring of Paul MacLean also made a world of difference. The former Detroit Red Wings assistant coach is an honest communicator and the Senators have benefitted from his approach.
"He's meant a lot to our success," Spezza said. "He came in and right from Day One got our attention. He came in with a fresh attitude for us and a great game plan in how he wanted us to play. He's been a real good fit for our team. He deserves a lot of credit for how we've done this year."
The Senators enjoyed a 20-point improvement under MacLean, while Spezza finished fourth in the league scoring race with 34 goals and 84 points, his best numbers since the 2007-08 season.
"He has taught me a lot," Spezza said. "We have a great relationship. There is a lot of give-and-take in our relationship. I respect him a lot. He played the game and had a lot of success as a player and he has been coaching a long time. He was in Detroit and had a lot of good experiences there.
"He has coached a lot of good players like [Pavel] Datsyuk and [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Nicklas] Lidstrom and these guys. He's definitely had a lot of good advice for me through the ups and downs of the season."
MacLean's message to Spezza was simple.
"Sometimes we just meet to get a feeling of how things are going," Spezza said. "He likes to keep his finger on the pulse of the team and what's happening. At times, when I'm struggling we go over my game and things that he thinks I can do different.
"He's been a big proponent of me trying to play in between the dots and stay out of the outside areas of the rink and really play in the middle of the ice because I can create a lot of attention to myself in the middle and free things up for my linemates, and it also keeps me in a good defensive position. That's been a bit of learning curve because I was so used to taking the puck wide."
In the previous six playoffs, three No. 8 seeds have bounced the top-ranked team in the first round. Could the Senators become the fourth, especially considering their success against the Rangers? Ottawa has beaten all-world Blueshirts goalie Henrik Lundqvist four times in the past two seasons.
Spezza did not want to give the Rangers any bulletin board material. Plus, he was around the Senators in his early days as a pro when Ottawa dominated the Toronto Maple Leafs in the regular season only to lose to the provincial rivals in the playoffs.
"We can draw a little bit of motivation in that we've had some success," he said. "It will give us a good framework in how we want to approach the series. I'm a big proponent that the regular season is to get a playoff spot and try to gain home ice. We know we're playing the conference champions, but we feel that everything is thrown out the window and everybody has an equal shot now."
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