The Ottawa Senators have dropped the first two games of their current three game road trip, a 5-4 shootout loss to the Atlanta Thrashers and a 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning but the team still has a chance to continue their role as playoff spoilers. After Thursday’s game against the Florida Panthers, they return home for a Saturday night match-up against the Toronto Maple Leafs. While the Leafs may be a long shot to make the playoffs, they are still in contention for eighth place in the Eastern Conference and will be a desperate team.
The Senators wrap up their season with home games against the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens before playing game number 82 in Boston. When the season concludes, Ottawa may have helped decide where these three teams finish in the final standings. Philadelphia is battling Washington and Pittsburgh for the number one seed and Boston and Montreal are battling for the Northeast Division title, although it appears the Bruins have locked up the division with a seven-point lead on Montreal. The new-look Senators have been playing for pride since the trade deadline and auditioning for roster positions on next year’s squad and the young guns from Binghamton would love to wrap up the season with a few key victories against the top teams in the Conference.
One player that is auditioning for a different kind of role with the Senators is assured of a roster spot for years to come – Jason Spezza. With team captain Daniel Alfredsson’s lingering back injury and the trading away of veteran players Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly, the role of team leader has fallen on the 27-year old shoulders of Spezza and he is handling the pressures of leadership admirably.
Since returning from a shoulder injury on February 5th, Spezza has 28 points (8 goals and 20 assists) in his last 25 games, taking over the team lead for total points. His creativity on offence, which has backfired at times and given fans and previous coaches nightmares, was sorely missed during his absence from the lineup. As Spezza recovered from his injury, the Senators managed one win with their number one centre on the shelf, posting a 1-11-3 record.
While he is nowhere near his career-best 92-point season (2007-2008), the former first round pick has developed into a better all-around player since his return to the lineup in February. Head coach Cory Clouston has a newfound confidence in Spezza and his commitment to being better defensively. Ottawa’s bench boss has not hesitated to have his best player on the ice during crucial moments in every game. An important element of Spezza’s game is his prowess in the faceoff circle; he ranks 10th overall in the league with a 56.4 winning percentage. Playing defence and winning faceoffs has led to a regular shift on the penalty kill for Spezza and in a season where a few timely saves could have made a difference in the standings, Ottawa has been outstanding on the penalty kill, ranking seventh overall in the league at 84.1%.
When the NHL season concludes, Spezza hopes to wear the national colours once again, suiting up with Team Canada at the IIHF World Championship in Slovakia. He has two silver medals from previous World Championships (2008 and 2009) and he hopes to add gold to his portfolio. The lights may be off at Scotiabank Place during the playoffs but a trip to the World Championship and the opportunity to shine on the world stage with Team Canada will help Spezza continue to improve his overall game.
In other Senators news – Captain Daniel Alfredsson continues to recover from his lingering back problems and hopes to return to the lineup before the season concludes. Alfredsson has missed the past seven weeks and is not ready for game action but he did have a light practise with his teammates in Tampa. With no playoffs on the horizon, it is unlikely Alfredsson would rush back for any games; how he feels over the next few days will decide whether he sees any game action again this year.
Andrew Rodger is an independent sports columnist and member of the Canadian Association of Journalists. Along with operating The Voice of Sport, he covers the Ottawa Senators and writes the “Ask the Alumni” series here at The Hockey Writers. He is the resident writer for the NHL Alumni Association and a contributor on CBC News Now.