That could have been Jason Spezza’s final game in the NHL.
After playing 1123 regular-season games in the league over a career that spanned 17 seasons, it’s difficult to say what the future holds for the 37-year-old. Other veterans like Henrik Lundqvist and Patrick Marleau had their last-chance Stanley Cup runs ended quickly, and it looked like Spezza was going to join them.
But he didn’t go down without a fight. Neither did his team.
Spezza’s best chance to win the Stanley Cup came back in 2007 with the Ottawa Senators. He was 23 years old at the time and had broken out as one of the league’s top young talents. Spezza posted 87 points in 67 regular-season games and a team-leading 22 points in 20 playoff games. The Sens would end up getting stopped in the Final by the Anaheim Ducks, bowing out in five games.
Back then, Spezza was that team’s version of Auston Matthews — the young, supremely talented centre tasked with carrying his team to success. Now, well over a decade later, Spezza is the veteran, mentoring the players that he used to be.
Spezza doesn’t have the ability to be a game-changing talent anymore, but he can still make a difference. And he did on Friday.
In the second period, with the Leafs down 2-0 and the team showing virtually zero signs of life, Spezza did what he could to get his teammates fired up. He dropped the gloves with defenceman Dean Kukan, a guy who’s a decade his junior, which represented just his eighth fight in his NHL career.
Fighting doesn’t have the same role in hockey that it used to. The goon and the enforcer have become nearly extinct as fighting slowly gets waned out. But Spezza’s scrap on Friday, one full of pure grit and emotion, has its role. It served as a wake-up call to the rest of the team.
“[I was] just trying to spark the guys,” Spezza said after the game. “Just trying to show some desperation & have some pushback. Sometimes, you know, without the crowd you don’t have that so just trying to create some emotion & play the role that I’m in & get everyone going.”
The sentiment from Zach Hyman — who ended up scoring the game-tying goal in the dying seconds of the third — paints the picture of what Spezza’s effort meant to the team.
“He wants it more than anybody,” Hyman said. “He was a first-line player throughout his career, an all-star, Hall of Famer. And now he’s playing on the fourth line and he’s willing to drop the gloves and give our team momentum when we’re down.
“He’s a real leader on our team, and he’s a huge part of our team. We all love him.”
And look at the reaction from the bench on the game-tying goal, the excitement that Spezza shows and how the teammates around him immediately embrace it.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) August 8, 2020
The job obviously isn’t over. The Leafs still need to win on Sunday in order to move on. There are plenty of reasons for the Leafs to show up and put their best foot forward, but winning for Jason Spezza should be at the top of their list.