It’s no secret Jason Spezza is no longer the same player the Dallas Stars acquired from the Ottawa Senators years ago. After Spezza was healthy scratched for two of the first three games against the Nashville Predators in their first-round series, the Stars have little choice but to hope he has at least some player left in him. It barely matters who at this stage. They just need someone, anyone to stand up.
Stars in Trouble
There’s a saying that you’re not in trouble in the playoffs until you first lose at home. Well, the Stars did just that in Game 3, giving the Predators back home-ice advantage. It was coincidentally Spezza’s first game of the playoffs… “coincidentally” because Spezza can hardly be blamed for the team’s failure to secure the victory.
Spezza played a decent game, with three shots on goal in 14:26 of ice time. Even though he didn’t score and he’s paid quite handsomely to do so (at least during the regular season), head coach Jim Montgomery expects Spezza back in the lineup for Game 4 on Wednesday.
Bishop Can’t Be to Blame
Besides, if we have to point fingers for the loss, most would be forced to do so in the direction of goalie Ben Bishop, who didn’t have his best game. However, considering the Vezina Trophy caliber season Bishop just had, it’s a fair bet the Stars don’t even make the playoffs without his heroics. So, moving on, let’s just call it a team loss.
The problem is that only a portion of the team seems to be executing these days and it’s the usual suspects. The team’s leading scorer is captain Jamie Benn, which is admittedly a good sign. From there, it’s a who’s who of the players you would expect to be scoring: Mats Zuccarello, Alexander Radulov, Tyler Seguin, Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg.
While there’s something to be said for having your top guys produce, it would be nice if someone else chipped in. As it stands, Ben Lovejoy is the only role player to have registered a point.
Spezza Is Stars’ Best New Hope
There are a few good reasons why the Stars can still upset the Predators. After all, teams overcome 2-1 series deficits all the time, but, for the Stars to stand any kind of chance, they’re going to have to get goals from elsewhere in the lineup, during a time of the season when extra defensive attention is paid to your top-paid players.
Enter Spezza, who technically falls into that category, with a four-year, $30 million deal. However, as has unfortunately become the norm, he’s not chipping in like he should be, with just eight goals and 27 points in 76 games this past season. Considering he got 26 points in 2017-18, in 78 games no less, he technically put together a better season, which is both quasi-encouraging and sad all at once.
Granted, Spezza only played an average of 13:16 per game, but 2:12 of it was on the power play. That ranked sixth-most on the team. His 12 power-play points ranked fourth, so there is some hope Spezza can still contribute in spite of his obvious deficiencies (lack of speed, defensive awareness). Seeing as the Stars’ power play hasn’t scored in 10 opportunities over the last two games and has just one goal in 13 overall in the playoffs, Spezza can theoretically help.
This Is Spezza’s Role to Play
Of course, he did receive 3:11 of power-play time in Game 3 and that didn’t work, but there comes a time when there can’t be any more excuses. For Spezza, that time came at the latest when the Stars replaced ex-head coach Ken Hitchcock, with whom Spezza clashed, with Montgomery. It’s probably something Spezza acknowledges to be true looking in the mirror: At this point, it’s him.
Well, technically it’s him and the rest of the players outside of the only-seven Stars who have points this series. The Predators in comparison have 15. In any case, Spezza’s come to represent role players on this team, because, unfortunately, that’s what he’s been reduced to, but the playoffs are when the role players must shine. Spezza may have only played a single game, but he has to find a way to break through, if not for the team than himself, seeing as his games as a Star are clearly numbered.
This is the last year of his contract. Chances are bleak to be kind that the Stars will re-sign him, especially when newcomer Mats Zuccarello, who’s four years younger, has proven to be a better fit. Spezza can still find a way to stay in the show, but time is running out.
The Stars may just be down 2-1, but, if there’s no desperation in their gameplay come Game 4, it’s arguably already too late. Turning to Spezza is a good start. In terms of status and skill, Spezza may have fallen off somewhat, but so do shooting stars. It’s time to wish upon one.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.