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Canadian Press
10/17/2006 4:34:09 PM

OTTAWA (CP) - Jason Spezza was back on the ice Tuesday and, according to the Ottawa Senators star, on firm ground with coach Bryan Murray.

Spezza, who missed practice a day earlier because of soreness in his lower torso, has spent much of this week downplaying rumours that he and Murray don't see eye-to-eye.

The coach was critical of the 23-year-old and linemates Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson following Ottawa's last game - a victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday in which Murray left his top snipers on the bench in shootout, where the Senators emerged with a 3-2 victory.

Spezza, with just two points in five games so far, was singled out in particular by Murray for his lacklustre play and not for the first time in the coach's tenure in Ottawa.

However, the Toronto native insists there are no hard feelings behind the scenes.

"He's hard on me and I don't mind it," Spezza said Tuesday. "I'm completely fine with it. There's no bad blood. There's no bad relationship. We have a pretty good relationship I think."

Spezza's penchant for flash and flair had him on a short leash with Murray's predecessor Jacques Martin, who often took the young player in and out of the lineup because of his lack of defensive discipline and carelessness with the puck.

Although Spezza racked up 90 points in just 68 games last year, including a franchise-record 71 assists, under Murray's more free-handed approach. Even still, the Senators were after him to cut down on his turnovers and giveaways.

The image of Murray rolling his eyes or puffing his cheeks after one of Spezza's drop passes at the other team's blue-line were intercepted is a familiar one to those who see the Senators regularly in action.

Murray, who doesn't hold back much from the media when it comes to assessing his players' performances, rejected the story making the rounds in the local newspapers that Spezza is in his doghouse, but readily admits he's been unimpressed with Spezza's play, as well as that of his linemates.

"What I'm asking them to do is not to turn the puck over as often a and what I'm asking them to do is come back and help out (defensively)," he said.

Murray says that when the Senators were scoring in bunches last year it masked their defensive deficiencies - a fault that eventually caught up to the team in the playoffs. This year, the big three aren't even contributing much offensively.

Heatley, who set a team record with 50 goals last season, has none so far. Alfredsson, who joined Heatley in setting a franchise mark with 103 points, has registered just three. Both Spezza and Heatley are minus players, while Alfredsson is plus-1 this season.

Spezza not only accepts the criticism, he agrees with it and realizes that in his fourth NHL season, he's still learning.

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