The Ottawa Senators won back-to-back games for the first time since early November with a 2-1 victory over the Nashville Predators before the Christmas break and a 3-1 win over the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday evening. While the team attempts to build upon their Christmas success, the win over the Penguins proved costly, as the team announced today that Jason Spezza is sidelined a minimum of 4 to 6 weeks with a right shoulder injury.
For a team that is already offensively challenged and extremely fragile in the confidence department, the loss of their number one centre and most dynamic playmaker could bring an end to the Senators playoff hopes before 2011 even begins. While the team is saying all the right things – someone will have to “step up” and replace Spezza, this group is already fighting for their playoff lives; someone should have stepped up already. The failure to do so leaves one wondering, where will this team be in the standings when and if Spezza does return this season?
Spezza’s injury occurred early in the second period when Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang sent him into the boards, his shoulder absorbing most of the impact from the hit/push. Letang was sent to the penalty box for a two-minute boarding penalty, while Spezza went to the dressing room, clearly favouring his right arm. The extent of the injury remains uncertain, as the Senators announced this morning that Spezza is out for 4-6 weeks but it will not be known whether he requires surgery until the swelling subsides and he is re-evaluated later in the week.
A dejected Spezza addressed the Ottawa media this morning after practise to discuss the injury.
“I’m pretty disappointed,” said Spezza. “It’s unfortunate. I knew something was wrong, the shoulder didn’t feel good and I got off the ice, I knew something was pretty bad.”
Asked if he had looked at a replay of the hit by Letang, Spezza said he had and discussed whether it was a clean hit or not.
“I saw it; I think it was a little bit dirty. He doesn’t have to push me there, my back is to him the whole time and I’m going for the puck. I think he even realizes it – he pushes me and then tries to catch me I think. It is what it is – it happens.”
“It is not going to be immediate (his return), it’s going to be a while. I’ve never hurt my shoulder before, so there is kind of a lot of a grey area right now; there is still a lot of swelling and stuff. We’ll just kind of take it day-by-day and see but it is not going to be any time soon.”
Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson weighed in on the situation after practise today as well.
“It’s part of the game,” said Alfredsson. “We’ll make the most of what we’ve got. Obviously, we feel that some guys will get moved up and do a good job, probably get a little more ice time. It’s never fun when you lose one of your best players but we are going to have to fight through it.”
While Spezza has struggled offensively this season (9 goals and 11 assists), there is little doubt he is the team’s most dynamic playmaker. The Spezza “haters” that have wanted to see the centre traded will now see what their team is like without one of the best face-off men in the league (Spezza is 12th in the NHL in the face-off circle at 56.4%). Even though Ottawa fans are tired of seeing Spezza’s blind-pass giveaways at the offensive blueline, it will be difficult for this group of players to overcome this injury – especially if it requires surgery and ends Spezza’s season. Ottawa’s top line now consists of Nick Foligno, Mike Fisher, and Daniel Alfredsson. The inconsistent Foligno and Fisher will have to find the net on a regular basis for Ottawa to remain in the playoff hunt.
It is true that Spezza has not been the same player since Dany Heatley left Ottawa, but he is not the only one at fault for his lack of offensive punch. If he had a talented winger like Heatley on his line, his creative passes would find the back of the net more often than they have in the past two seasons. General Manager Bryan Murray has searched for a top-six forward to add to his lineup but he is yet to find a player to replace Heatley – a true sniper to compliment Spezza’s style of play.
With their backs already against the wall, the Ottawa Senators and their playoff hopes rest on the shoulders of the existing lineup. Love him or hate him, Spezza is one of Ottawa’s most creative players and without his services for at least 4 to 6 weeks, the playoffs may be a distant dream by the time he returns. When the trade deadline arrives, Ottawa may be one of the “sellers” and not the “buyers” they were hoping to be.
If you believe the glass is half-full, Ottawa is still in the playoff hunt, sitting in 9th place in the Eastern Conference with 36 points, four points behind the Boston Bruins (Boston has played four less games). However, the Carolina Hurricanes sit in 10th place, two points behind Ottawa with three games in hand. The Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres are four points back with games in hand as well. It could be said that Ottawa is closer to 12th or 13th place than the 8th and final playoff position.
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.