DALLAS — For Jason Spezza, the Stars on game night are still big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas.
Which makes one of his last visits here on Thursday very special, indeed.
“Five good years, a great place to play hockey, the fans were incredible,” said Spezza, who turns 39 in a few months. “We got close a couple of times in Game 7s in the second round. I have a lot of good friends.
“You don’t take any of these games for granted.”
Spezza, who began his lengthy career in Ottawa, is wrapping up his second one-year deal with the Leafs after leaving Dallas. The minimum salary contracts have worked out well the hometown Spezza as well as the cash-strapped Leafs. But the number of younger players the team hopes to introduce this season and next likely will come at the expense of Spezza’s fourth line ice time.
Coach Sheldon Keefe has indicated Spezza and fellow veterans Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford will be rotated in and out of the lineup before a final determination is made on a starting playoff roster.
“You keep yourself ready and stay fresh that way,” said Spezza in trying to make the best of being a healthy scratch. “When you play, play well. It’s just a reflection of a deep team. Knock on wood, we have no more injuries.”
MUZZLE OFF OF MUZZIN
One of the bright spots Keefe took out of that strange 7-6 overtime loss to Florida on Tuesday was the ease in which Jake Muzzin returned from six weeks with his second concussion.
“I had to watch his shifts (because of the time off), but he was physical and I liked the way he played his (usual) game,” Keefe said of the defenceman.
Ilya Lyubushkin comes back in Thursday after Keefe thought it was a good time for a breather after he was leaned on heavily in Muzzin’s absence.
ONE FOR THE BOOKS
Only two Toronto coaches, have enjoyed 100-point seasons, Mike Babcock (twice) and Pat Quinn (three times). But there is a chance Keefe’s Leafs top the team mark of 105 from the 2017-18 season. They’re now 11 short of that number with a dozen games remaining. This edition has also yet to lose 20 times in regulation after 70 games.
The most important part of the standings, however, is keeping at least second place in the Atlantic Division to gain home-ice advantage in the first round of playoffs. The Panthers are eight up on the Leafs, who in turn are three ahead of the Bruins and Lightning before those clubs face off Friday.