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Ken Warren, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Friday, January 26, 2007

Centre Jason Spezza was back at practice yesterday with new linemates Antoine Vermette and Patrick Eaves.

He's scheduled to be back in the lineup tomorrow afternoon as the Ottawa Senators return to game action against the Boston Bruins, following the all-star break.

But is Spezza's injured left knee completely healthy?

"It's not 100 per cent. I don't think it will be 100 per cent for the rest of year," said Spezza, who has missed 14 games since spraining a ligament during a Dec. 21 game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. "It's not going to cause more damage, but it's probably not going (to heal completely) until the summer when you have some rest."

For the time being, anyway, Spezza is playing with a knee brace, hoping to get back into the offensive groove he was in at the time of the injury.

Spezza has 19 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season, and had 10 goals and nine assists in 14 games before he was injured.

Still, he faces pressure in his return, coming back to a team that went 11-2-1 in his absence, which led some vocal Senators fans to suggest the team is better off without him.

At the time of the injury, Spezza and left-winger Dany Heatley were inseparable.

Now, due to the hot streak of the line of Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Kelly (a combined 24 goals and 35 assists in the 14 games), coach Bryan Murray can't split up the trio.

As a result, Spezza now has Vermette and Eaves on his wings. Mike Fisher, who could return from his knee injury next week, is expected to take Eaves' spot. Spezza will also likely be inserted back onto the first power-play unit, alongside Heatley and Alfredsson.

"It's going to start that way, with Vermette on the left side," Murray said, after putting the team through a one-hour practice and a 30-minute off-ice workout. "Antoine was the guy I was sort of using on the left side a little bit. He was doing some penalty killing and playing the power play occasionally, and Patty will fill in there (on right wing) for the time being."

Spezza understands there could be an adjustment period. Returning to action after a five-week injury layoff, coupled with having new linemates, means everything might not click immediately.

"Everyone is in midseason form and I'm trying to get back into it," said Spezza, who had three hour-long skating sessions at Scotiabank Place earlier in the week. "We haven't played too much together, but hopefully it's not going to take too long. I want to get into a game situation. It was a pretty good week, I worked pretty hard. I've done a lot of conditioning stuff. I've worked as hard as I could for a month and I feel good, but it's always different when you get into a game."

Vermette, who has 15 goals and 11 assists in 45 games, is the unquestioned speedster on the line, but he says the three need time to develop a chemistry.

"Part of it is communication," he said. "I have to use my speed and Patrick is such a smart player and works hard. (Spezza) is such a good player and he sees the ice so well."

Eaves, not so fresh from his early morning flight from Dallas, where he took part in the Young Stars game on Tuesday, has renewed confidence after going into the all-star break on a roll. Eaves scored only five goals in his first 42 games of the year, but potted five in a three-game span between Jan. 9-13.

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