Monday, May 19, 2003 Updated: May 21, 5:25 PM ET
Spezza helps Senators force Game 6
By EJ Hradek ESPN The Magazine
KANATA, Ontario -- And a child shall lead them. Or, at least, get them to Game 6.
Jason Spezza made quite an impressive in his first NHL game since April 5.
In this case, the child is 19-year-old Jason Spezza (who turns 20 on June 13th). And them are the Ottawa Senators, who staved off playoff elimination with a 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils at the Corel Centre on Monday night.
Spezza, who was anointed as Canada's next great player (see: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux) at age 15, made the most of his much anticipated first playoff appearance.
The rangy 6-foot-2, 200-pound center assisted on the strange game-winning goal --credited to Martin Havlat -- at the 7:59 mark of the third period and added an insurance power-play goal less than five minutes later.
For his good work, Spezza lived a Canadian boyhood dream. He was selected as the game's first star, raised his stick to the wild hometown crowd then skated off for an interview on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada.
"I don't think I could have scripted it any better," Spezza said.
No, Jason, you really couldn't have. To make matters more interesting, Spezza wasn't sure he'd be in the lineup in just hours before the opening faceoff.
"The coaches told me when I got to the rink around five o'clock," said Spezza, who scored seven goals and totaled 21 points in 33 NHL games while bouncing back-and-forth between Ottawa and its AHL affiliate in Binghamton during his first pro season. "I'm usually pretty loose before games, so I just wanted to stick to my routine."
Senators coach Jacques Martin opted to add Spezza (scratching rugged right wing Chris Neil) to the lineup to spice up his suddenly listless power play (0-for-15 in the first four games) and add some energy to his club.
"You have to like his enthusiasm and what he brings to the table," Martin said. "I think we know he's a good player and he helped us win tonight."
After an understandable slow start -- he hadn't played an NHL game since April 5 -- Spezza seemed to catch up to the pace of the game. Once he did, he became a factor on most of his 16 shifts. The kid with the long reach and the keen hockey sense created several offensive chances, especially during the Senators' seven power-play chances. Of his 11:22 of ice time, 6:10 came with the man advantage.
But, it was at even strength, that Spezza helped the Senators grab a 2-1 lead. He and left wing Peter Schaefer did an excellent job of forechecking in the Devils' zone. The duo combined to strip the puck from left wing Sergei Brylin. The puck ended up on the stick of Havlat behind the net to Brodeur's left. The talented Havlat shoveled the puck at Brodeur, hoping for a good bounce off the goalie. At first, he didn't get it. Then, Brodeur got tangled up with defenseman Richard Smehlik. The puck caromed off Smehlik's right skate and trickled into the net.
The Senators scored a more conventional goal a few minutes later. With Devils right wing Brian Gionta in the box for hooking, Spezza lined up for a faceoff against Devils center Pascal Rheaume. Spezza, who won eight of nine draws on the night, worked the puck cleanly to D-man Zdeno Chara. The 6-foot-9 Chara quickly moved the puck to defensive partner Chris Phillips on the left point. Phillips faked a slap shot then slid a sharp pass to Spezza, who was alone in the slot. He made no mistake, redirecting the pass through Brodeur's legs.
Game. Set. Match. See you Wednesday in New Jersey.
"It was an easy play for me," Phillips said. "I really had just one option there. I saw him come open in front. He did the hard part."
For Spezza, the hard part will be doing it again Wednesday. That's the hard part for every kid trying to make his way in the NHL. And, he knows it.
"I can enjoy it tonight, but after that I have to park it and get ready for the next game," said Spezza, whose parents were in attendance for their boy's big night. "Tomorrow, we start fresh."
Thanks to the kid with the bright future, the Senators have at least one more tomorrow.
E.J. Hradek writes hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.