Ottawa Senators (4) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (5): Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
The Goods: The Senators were 48-25-9 this season and had the same point total as the 5th place Penguins, who went 47-24-11. The Pens are in the playoffs for the first time since 2001; in that same time frame Ottawa has consistently underachieved, including last year, when despite being the favourite to win the Cup all last season, Ottawa lost to Buffalo in the second round in head coach Bryan Murray’s first year behind the Sens bench. Ottawa doesn’t have the distraction that was Dominik Hasek and his groin problem last year, but also let go of key contributors Zdeno Chara and Martin Havlat, the theory being that a bit deeper lineup and the continuing maturation of a young core of players will offset that loss of star power. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has star power aplenty; 19-year-old centre Sidney Crosby led the NHL with 120 points and is a favourite to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP, while rookies Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal have been superb. Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Whitney, like Crosby in their second full NHL seasons, have likewise taken their games to new levels, helping to solidify the goaltending and defense, respectively, and a handful of veterans like Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi and Sergei Gonchar also play key roles. Pittsburgh’s power play was 5th in the league during the regular season, led by Crosby’s 61 power play points, with their penalty killing 17th; Ottawa ranked 14th and 9th, respectively.
Game One: Because of time constraints, this preview could not be completed before game one on Wednesday. Your esteemed hockey editor apologizes for his tardiness. Ottawa had a very comfortable 6-1 lead midway through the third period before the Penguins scored two late goals to make the score a bit more respectable. Ottawa got goals from six different guys and basically cruised to victory. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was in goal for all six, and while the loss can’t be completely laid at his feet, he obviously didn’t have a great game. Both teams scored twice on the power play. Ottawa got goals from each of their top three lines, a goal and an assist from tough guy Chris Neil, and two assists from each of Peter Schaefer, Anton Volchenkov, and Joe Corvo. What’s more, Volchenkov and defense partner Chris Phillips were able to contain the Penguins first line except for two power play tallies, including a Sidney Crosby goal with less than a minute left with the game well out of reach.
The Key: Goaltending. You can say this of any series, but when two relatively inexperienced keepers like Ray Emery and Fleury face one another, the team that gets the most consistent, clutch play from their netminder will win. Emery has a deeper defense that gave up fewer goals during the season than the Penguins did, but there will be times, especially when the Senators are shorthanded, that he’ll have to stand on his head. Fleury, meanwhile, has a lot to prove during his first Stanley Cup playoff experience, and consistency has never been his strong point. Fans of the World Junior Hockey Championship may recall the championship game in 2004 when Fleury fired a puck off his own defenseman and in for the winning goal. I’m not trying to bring up bad memories for the guy, but this isn’t the only example of Fleury giving up a weak goal late in a game, it’s just the best example of him doing so in a high-pressure situation. Emery is two years older, and while he wasn’t bad filling in for Hasek in last year’s playoffs, he wasn’t able to carry them past the Sabres. His extra experience should serve him well, but Fleury’s raw talent is undeniable. Both have veteran backups, Martin Gerber in Ottawa, Jocelyn Thibault in Pittsburgh, but you might say that if either team has to turn to those players the series may be already lost.
Pittsburgh Wins If: They can overcome a general lack of experience at every position. No one can deny that the Penguins have some dynamite young talent, especially in Crosby, Malkin and Fleury, and they’ll probably be great in years to come. But great teams of the past have had to lose at least a few years before finally coming out on top. The Oilers didn’t make it to the third round for three years and didn’t win the Cup until four years into the Gretzky-Messier era; the Pens may have to go through a similar stretch before they have a real impact in the playoffs. Adding Roberts at the deadline was a good idea and also helps the Pens lack of depth on the wing, but with ten key performers 26 or younger it just might not be Pittsburgh’s time yet. Pittsburgh has also had problems with depth all season, and it was evident in game one; if Crosby or Malkin’s line doesn’t score a few goals, the Penguins are in trouble. As gifted as the Penguins are in the middle with their three young centres, on the wings they just don’t have a lot of talent. Likewise, on defense the Penguins have two very good ones in Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, but beyond those two it gets very thin very quickly. Pittsburgh is really going to need a few guys outside their star players, guys maybe not too many people have heard of, to really step up their games if they’re going to win.
Ottawa Wins If: They can use their deep, mobile defense to it’s full advantage. Ottawa’s defense is six good players deep, seven if you count Christoph Schubert, who’s versatile enough to play wing when the Sens top six is healthy but can effectively step into any spot on the blueline when necessary. The Sens defense doesn’t have quite the physical edge that the 6’9 Chara gave them, but Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov have developed into a great shutdown pair, Wade Redden and Andrej Meszaros have been inconsistent but have a lot of talent, and Joe Corvo and Tom Preissing are good two-way players. Taking on the rather wicked offensive talent that is Crosby and Malkin falls to them, along with defensive centre Mike Fisher, and very few teams have been able to handle them this season. The Senators defense is clearly a much different unit without Chara. Chara, signed by Boston as a free agent last summer, is a massive physical specimen and has the ability to dominate his own end. On the other hand, it’s not like Ottawa ever won anything with him in the lineup. Maybe a deeper, more mobile defense will improve their chances. They’ll clearly have to be at the top of their game for the Senators to win.
Bottom Line: Chalk this one up as a learning experience for the Penguins. Ottawa’s playoff experience may be mostly disappointing, but it’s still experience. Ottawa should take this one, and unless the Penguins improve considerably from game one, it could be over in a hurry. Senators in five.