Spezza's now centre stage

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:56 AM ET

Senators centre Jason Spezza is ready for prime time.

The last time the Senators were eliminated from the playoffs in Game 7 of the first round -- on April 20, 2004 -- by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Spezza was forced to play the role of spectator at the Air Canada Centre.

Times have changed since former coach Jacques Martin didn't trust Spezza enough to put him in the lineup on a regular basis in the playoffs.

Spezza will have to shoulder a big part of the load as the Senators open an Eastern Conference quarter-final series tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Scotiabank Place.

"I know this is going to be tough," said Spezza yesterday. "But I like the pressure. I want to have fun with it."

This will be the 22-year-old Spezza's debut in the playoffs as the go-to centre. If the Senators are going to win this series -- and ultimately the Stanley Cup -- he will need to be a guy who steps it up on a nightly basis.

He's going to have to come up big against Tampa's top centre, Vinny Lecavalier. Defensive shortcomings aside, Spezza's offence is key to the Senators.

Ottawa coach Bryan Murray is trying to find a way where he can make it work. That's why rookie Chris Kelly has been placed on a line with Dany Heatley and Spezza.

Murray needs to be careful. He would reunite captain Daniel Alfredsson with Spezza and Heatley, but wants to see if he can spread the offence around to have three solid lines.

"I've got (Kelly) there because I want him to give support defensively to two of our best offensive players," said Murray.

Heatley and Spezza have good chemistry and that's why they're being kept together. During the regular season, Spezza had 19 goals and 71 assists in 68 games, while Heatley had 50 goals and 53 assists for 103 points in 82 games.

Expect to see the Bolts try to get in Spezza's face. Coach John Tortorella is going to see if physical play might make the Senators top forwards back down when the going gets tough.

If Spezza is supposed to be feeling any heat going into this first round series against the Bolts, he doesn't look or sound like it.

"I'm not going to try to change anything about my game going into the playoffs," said Spezza. "I don't think you can do that and have success. What you've got to do is make sure you go out there and make the right play.

"This is the time of year you want to be playing. I don't mind having the pressure one bit. I know what is expected of me and I look forward to going out there and trying to help the team win."

Spezza said this series -- and these playoffs -- aren't going to be all about him.

"We have a lot of depth on this team and we're going to need everybody to step up if we're going to have success," said Spezza. "Whoever we play against, we're going to have to play well as a team. You know at this time of year you have to elevate your game."

Spezza is prepared for that challenge.


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