- Scott Burnside, NHL
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OTTAWA, Ontario -- These are days of great promise and deep foreboding for the Ottawa Senators.
Trailing the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins 2-0 in their Eastern Conference semifinals series after a virtuoso three-goal performance by Sidney Crosby on Friday night in Pittsburgh, the Senators hope the phoenix-like return of No. 1 center Jason Spezza on Sunday night in Game 3 will help turn the tide in a series that is on the verge of running away from them.
"Anytime you can add a player of Jason's ability, that's a huge, huge step," coach Paul MacLean told reporters at Scotiabank Place, where Games 3 and 4 will take place Sunday and Wednesday.
"He's a No. 1 center, he's an 80-point guy, fourth-leading scorer in the league last year, he's very good on the power play, can provide offense from anywhere on the ice, and that's something we don't have on our team right now, consistently, and this is the first time we'll have the three centermen we thought we'd have on our team all year," MacLean said.
If there's one person who knows about the dynamics of stepping back into the fray after long layoffs, it's Crosby. He had to wait months to get back into action after suffering from concussion-related issues stemming from a hit in a Jan. 1, 2011, game and more recently missed time with a broken jaw sustained March 30.
The Pittsburgh captain said he doesn't think Spezza will have much of a problem in his first game back given the excitement factor.
"I don't think the first one's too bad, honestly," Crosby said. "I think you're full of adrenaline. You don't really get a great feel for everything in the first one. I feel it's the ones after that.
"After that first one, it's obviously a little bit different, and you get into the grind a little bit. The timing and things like that takes a little bit, but as for your energy getting into the game, it's pretty easy, especially coming back into the playoffs, so I'd expect Jason to be pretty good out there."
Spezza was among those on the ice for an optional workout Saturday afternoon. He did not travel to Pittsburgh for the first two games of the series, won by Pittsburgh by 4-1 and 4-3 counts, as he continued to try to work himself back into game shape after missing all but five regular-season games due to a chronic back injury that required surgery to repair.
He admitted this has been a difficult season as his recovery has at times not gone the way he expected or hoped it would.
"It's one of the worst things you can do as an athlete is watch your teammates battle," Spezza said Saturday. "There were some frustrating times for me during the process, and it's been, hockey-wise, one of the longest years of my career just trying to get back.
"But now I'm back, and now it's in the past, and I think the excitement's just the fact that I get to play a game again. There's been a lot of hard work to get here, and [I] hope to make the most of it."
Spezza's teammates talked about the thrill of having a top-end offensive player come back to the lineup. MacLean talked about the boost Spezza should bring to the proceedings, especially on the power play, where the Senators have been overmatched against the deadly Penguins.
The Senators are 1-for-7 with the man advantage while the Penguins have scored three times on 10 opportunities.
"I anticipate everything feeling good and [am] excited to be back," Spezza said. "Hopefully I can just kind of help and add some excitement and bring some emotion. When you come back after a long time, I think you can give a little bit of a jolt to the team, and that's what I'm hoping to provide."
But the obvious excitement over Spezza's return and the potential he has to help tilt the table back in the Senators' favor in this series has been blunted somewhat by the reality of the wall that has been hit by the Senators' other defier of medical odds, defenseman Erik Karlsson.
The defending Norris Trophy winner was thought to be lost for the season after suffering a lacerated Achilles tendon after getting tangled up with Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke in a game less than a month into the lockout-shortened regular season. But Karlsson returned just before the playoffs and played well in the Senators' opening-round victory over Montreal.
But he has looked off in two losses to the Penguins and saw his ice time cut dramatically in Friday's 4-3 loss, finishing with 15:37 compared to the 25:19 he averaged last season. He was a bystander as Crosby breezed past him to score the first goal of the game early in the first period and was in the penalty box after being forced to take a hooking penalty, on Cooke of all people, in the first minute of the second period, setting up Crosby's third goal of the game.
MacLean didn't mince words after the game Friday, saying the players who are playing the best will play for the Senators and that Karlsson wasn't among the team's best players, hence his ice time.
Karlsson, not surprisingly, was upbeat about Spezza's return, calling the big center "a world-class player."
"He was probably our best player last year, and to get him back would obviously help our younger players and the older players as well, and I think just we get a little bit more boost in our offensive game," the smooth-skating defenseman said. "It's going to be tough, but I think if he plays, I think he's going to be ready and he's going to feel that he's ready and him coming back and playing the best he can, and I think no matter how good he plays, he's going to be good enough to make an impact on our team."
As for his own level of play, Karlsson was forthright in saying he wasn't where he needs to be, but he did not place blame on the injury or the notion he might have come back too soon.
"Obviously I'm not playing the way I want to," he said. "I've got to play a little bit more poised with the puck and a little bit faster in our own zone, and I've got to move my feet a little bit more and just find the right position that I'm usually in. Right now, it's a little bit too much in between, and I can't help myself.
"I don't know really what it is. It's a tough game out there. Right now, I don't think anyone is making me play bad. I think it's more myself just not doing the things that I normally do and maybe overthinking a little bit too much out there.
"Physically, I feel great. I mean, I move around well outside the ice, and I have no issues with anything I do. It's just a matter of trusting in myself and believe that I can play almost the same way as I did before I got hurt."
And isn't that the nub of it all?
Did anyone, especially Karlsson, expect he could return to the magical presence he was a year ago, when he recorded 78 points, given the grisly nature of the injury he suffered and the relatively short time it took him to rehab from that injury?
In a word, no.
But his experiences this spring provide a cautionary counterweight to the giddy anticipation that accompanies Spezza's return.
It's obvious, Spezza said, that the Penguins are targeting Karlsson, trying to put pressure on him and get him out of his comfort zone.
"And I expect the same," Spezza said. "We'd do the same to their guys if we knew they'd been out for a while. But I think he's played real well for the most part."
As though having listened in on their conversation, Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang echoed the sentiments, saying it will be important to take away Spezza's space.
"It's going to be important to be in his face right away," the Norris Trophy nominee said. "He's really good when he's got a lot of room to skate, and he's got good hands, so he can make you look really bad."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said they will have to expect Spezza to give the Senators a big boost in Game 3 and might have to adjust to his presence.
"For them getting a star player, a very skilled player, a very dangerous player with a great shot back in their lineup is going to be a huge bonus for them," Bylsma said.
So what, then, are realistic expectations for the gifted center given the dire circumstances in which he makes his return?
He has never been particularly fleet of foot. How can he be reasonably expected to simply jump into the frenetic pace of a second-round series, especially against a Penguins team that is starting to hit its stride after an uneven first-round matchup against the New York Islanders?
MacLean said he will watch and see what Spezza shows him early in Game 3 and judge accordingly in terms of ice time and situations to which he exposes his franchise center.
Spezza is expected to play with longtime winger Milan Michalek, who is also battling injury and has been a nonfactor in the series.
The sobering reality is that for the Senators to mount a comeback against the Penguins, they are going to need both miracle boys, Karlsson and Spezza, to defy the medical odds and the hockey odds to push the Sens where they haven't yet been in this series, the winner's circle.
The question that will be answered unequivocally Sunday night is whether that is simply too much to ask.
He's missed all but five games this season due to injury, but the Senators hope Jason Spezza can provide the spark they need to take on the Penguins.