Centre of excellence

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:36 AM ET

With an Eastern Conference final date with the Buffalo Sabres beginning tomorrow night, Jason Spezza admits he heard the comments and he admits now, they hurt.

The Senators centre has been through a lot -- from being a healthy scratch in the Eastern Conference final in 2003, to the boos at Scotiabank Place after another turnover, to the talk this year that the Senators were a better team without him, to opposition teams seeing him as the entry point to exploiting a talented, but soft team.

"There were a lot of comments," said Senators coach Bryan Murray, "that maybe we were better off without him. I think that hurt him. I know it did. He laughed about it, but not really."

When Spezza was out with a knee injury in December, the Senators went 11-2-1.

Who needs him, right?

"I came back wanting to prove I could help this team more than I hurt it. I never felt like I was hurting this team," he said yesterday. "Definitely there was probably a little -- I don't want to say vengeance -- but a goal behind me playing well and showing people."

Spezza has been a leader on this team. A leader in buying into Murray's plan, giving up a chance to beat somebody one-on-one, which it seems is in his DNA, and instead flipping a puck in the corner and going to the bench for a change.

A lot has changed. He had a bad back at this time last year -- he had surgery for a disc problem after the season -- and it slowed him down in the second round against Buffalo.

"Looking back, I probably would have been better off maybe going in for surgery and just calling it a season. But at the time, you just feel like battling through it," he said. "I think I helped the team more than I would have if I was out of the lineup.

"This year I felt like I had another notch going into the playoffs, that I could elevate my game and go to that next level. Last year, I couldn't go to that level. I just tried to make it through."

Since returning from his knee injury, Spezza has been transformed.

DRURY NEXT ON LIST?

He won a matchup against Art Ross Trophy winner Sidney Crosby in the first round, then outplayed Selke Trophy winner John Madden and the New Jersey Devils in the second round.

Now it will likely be a matchup with Buffalo Sabres centre Chris Drury. Spezza wants to be the type of player who can play in any situation, against any opponent.

He remembered a conversation with Murray last year and what he heard about how he was perceived by the Philadelphia Flyers.

"I remember Bryan saying to me last year his brother (Terry, an assistant with the Flyers) said that Philly felt if they played us in the playoffs that (Peter) Forsberg would be able to outplay me and they would win the series. That's something that stuck with me and kind of pissed me off a little bit," he said.

"I don't want to be like that. Now I feel like I can go head-to-head with Peter Forsberg, any of the top guys and try and prove myself. I probably wasn't at that level last year."

He has found a new level.

He might need to find another, starting tomorrow night.


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