OTTAWA - As general manager Bryan Murray railed against the hit that injured Jason Spezza, the rest of the Ottawa Senators went about preparing for life without their star centre.
Spezza, who suffered an injury to his right shoulder after being checked into the boards by Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang on Sunday in a 3-1 win, is expect to be out at least a few weeks. He’ll be re-evaluated next week when the swelling subsides.
And for a team that’s struggling to stay within distance of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference and has been starved for offence for much of the season, losing one of its top offensive talents was a blow it could do without.
On Tuesday, following the Senators’practice in preparation for Wednesday’s game against the visiting Carolina Hurricanes, Murray voiced his displeasure over Letang’s shove from behind that led to Spezza losing his balance and crashing into the boards.
“I’m obviously emotional and prejudiced about it. We lose a valuable player on our hockey team for a period of time,”Murray said.“I watched it again…and I don’t understand why that’s not considered a hit from behind.
“The guy pushed hard. Jason was stumbling, no question. But, I mean really, if you look at where his head hit on the ice, it could have been a back injury or a neck injury as much as anything else.”
Murray was also unhappy with the lack of subsequent discipline from the NHL against the Penguins’defenceman, who received a two-minute minor on the play, but escaped further punishment after a review of the hit.
If it had been a different player—one of the Senators hitting a Penguins’star like Sidney Crosby, it was suggested—the review may have found differently, he argued.
“I watch the game and how calls are and I think if that would have been—and I’m not going to use a name—a different player, it might well have been a major," Murray said. "The guy would have been out of the game for sure and the league would suspend him.”
Like many of the Senators, Spezza has struggled to produce this season and was on pace for his worst season production-wise since his first partial year in the league after scoring just nine times and adding 11 assists through 32 games.
However, his offensive talents are better than anything else Ottawa has up the middle and given that the Senators (16-17-4) have scored just 86 times—only four teams in the NHL had less heading into Tuesday night’s games—they could use all the help they can get.
Coach Cory Clouston said the Senators, who won three out of four games when Spezza sat out with a groin injury in a stretch in October, might be able to cope in the short term. But his prolonged absence will pose a big challenge.
Ottawa, with points in eight of its last 11 games, is still in touching distance of eighth in the conference nearing the halfway point of the season, but any further slide could see its post-season hopes fade quickly.
“We had a short frame where we were able to make due, but we’re a better team with him in the lineup,”Clouston said.“It’s disappointing. We just have to accept it and move on.”
In Spezza’s absence Peter Regin is being given the opportunity to take Spezza’s spot on the top line with left-winger Milan Michalek and right-winger Alex Kovalev. Forward Zack Smith was also recalled from AHL Binghamton on Tuesday.
The 24-year-old Dane has been a disappointment this season after a strong finish to last year. Despite being given the chance to play in the team’s top lines previously, he’s managed a single goal and 11 points in 35 games, production that’s resulted in him demotion to the fourth line and the press box at various times.
Regin and Kovalev have played together on and off and Clouston thinks they’ll have some chemistry, while Michalek is a bigger body who goes to the net. He hopes the trio makes for a winning formula.
“I’m excited, obviously, to get a chance and to try and make the most of it,”Regin said.“I don’t think they expect me to put Spezza’s numbers, I’m just trying to be the player I can be and play to my potential.
"I haven’t done that so far, so that’s my goal.”
Spezza has also been used as a penalty-killer and key faceoff man by the Senators. Clouston said fourth-line centre Jesse Winchester is a leading candidate to take up those responsibilities. Ryan Shannon and Smith are others who might see an increased workload.
“Obviously, it’s a good player we lose and a No. 1 centre, but as long as we play as we have been and other guys try and step up as much as they can and try and fill his shoes, I think we still have a good team,”said second-year defenceman Erik Karlsson, who leads the team in scoring with 23 points in 35 contests, one point more than captain Daniel Alfredsson.