It wasn’t only the inspired playoff debut of 19-year-old rookie Jason Spezza that lifted the Ottawa Senators on Monday night.
Before Spezza contributed a goal and an assist in the Senators’ 3-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils, a result that cut the Devils’ lead in the NHL Eastern Conference finals to three games to two, ailing Senator assistant coach Roger Neilson delivered a rousing pregame speech.
“I have been around a lot of things,” veteran forward Shaun Van Allen told the Ottawa Sun, “but I don’t know if I have been around anything like that before.”
Neilson, battling two forms of cancer, sat on a chair in front of a group of players that had compiled the NHL’s best regular-season record but had been pushed to the brink of playoff elimination after losing three consecutive games to the Devils.
“He told us you only get so many chances,” Van Allen said. “Here’s a guy who is really sick, fighting the toughest battle anybody could ever fight. How on earth did he have the guts and courage to come in and say that to us?”
With Neilson having gone home to watch on television, the Senators avoided elimination in front of 18,500 in the Corel Centre, scoring two third-period goals to break a 1-1 tie. Spezza assisted on the first and scored the second.
“Obviously, he was a factor in the game,” Devil center John Madden said of the No. 2 pick in the 2001 draft. “Before the series, I thought they were saying he wasn’t a strong skater, but you get him out there with a bunch of guys who have played 15 playoff games, he looked pretty fast to me.”
The Devils, however, still hold the upper hand as the series shifts to the Continental Airlines Center for Game 6 tonight. The Devils, hoping to win their third conference title in four seasons and advance to take on the idling Mighty Ducks in the Stanley Cup finals, are 8-0 at home in the playoffs.
Still, the Senators believe they’ve been given new life.
“We’ve been waiting to set kind of a benchmark for what we had to do,” defenseman Chris Phillips said after Monday’s victory. “Game 1 was a good one for us, but we hadn’t seen that for a few games. And now we’re going to have to be even better.”