By Allan Muir
On paper, the Pittsburgh Penguins appear to be coming into their second-round series against the Ottawa Senators as heavy favorites. The Pens swept the teams’ three regular-season meetings on the way to the Eastern Conference crown and feature a star-studded lineup that was deepened by GM Ray Shero at the deadline. But Pittsburgh struggled to get past the gritty New York Islanders in the first round, victimized by lapses in discipline, lack of focus and sketchy goaltending. Was that the product of playing against an inferior opponent, or evidence that this is a team ripe for an upset? The Senators, meanwhile, arrive on a high after throttling the second-seeded Canadiens in five games. Netminder Craig Anderson gives Ottawa a chance to win every night, and the special teams are feeling the flow. And while no one other than Sens owner Eugene Melnyk will admit it, there might just be a little residual bad blood in the wake of the Erik Karlsson-Matt Cooke incident earlier this season. This sets up as a nasty, fast-paced series.
Jan. 27: Penguins 2, Senators 1 (SO)
Feb. 13: Penguins 4, Senators 2
April 22: Penguins 3, Senators 1
Senators: C Jason Spezza (back, indefinite); D Patrick Wiercioch (lower body, day-to-day)
Penguins: C Jussi Jokinen (lower body, day-to-day)
Ottawa’s keys to victory
The Islanders rattled Pittsburgh’s defenders with their speed and physical domination, taking away the time and space that allows them to be so effective in transition. That led to too many turnovers and too many premium scoring chances that ended up in the back of the Pens’ net. The Senators have the right mix of attributes up front to ramp that punishment up a notch, and that could make life miserable for the Pens. So could Anderson. Ottawa’s all-world netminder posted a salty .950 save percentage in the opening round against Montreal. If anyone is capable of getting in the heads of Pittsburgh’s premium shooters and shutting them down, it’s this guy.
Pittsburgh’s keys to victory
First, the Pens need a reliable performance between the pipes. Second, they need to tighten up their gaps to help eliminate the turnovers that plagued them against the Isles. Third, they need to key on Erik Karlsson and punish him every time he touches the puck. But most importantly, Pittsburgh needs to fully capitalize on its considerable advantage in strength down the middle. Ottawa’s centers are younger, smaller and less experienced than Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Brandon Sutter. If the Pens can wear them down and control the middle of the ice, they should generate better scoring chances than Montreal’s undersized forwards did.
All eyes will be on Pittsburgh’s goaltending. Will Dan Bylsma stick with Tomas Vokoun or give Marc-Andre Fleury a chance to regain his job? And can either of them match up with Anderson? That’s a big question, but the real X-factor is the looming presence of Jason Spezza. Coach Paul MacLean says his top center is “a ways away” from returning to action, but the fact that Spezza joined his teammates in practice on Saturday prompted speculation that he might be available as soon as Game 3 in Ottawa. Getting up to speed after missing all but the first five games of the season would be a considerable challenge, but the chance to add a point-per-game scorer (and possibly take some pressure off the kids by dropping them down the depth chart) could change the complexion of this series.
Point to ponder
Sidney Crosby poses a threat to any team he faces, but he’s been particularly difficult for the Sens to contain. He’s put up a 4-8-12 line in seven meetings over the past three seasons, and has been held off the score sheet only once over that span.
Pittsburgh in seven: If Anderson is on his game, the Sens could sweep this series. That’s how massive of an edge he provides in contrast to Pittsburgh’s wildly unstable netminding scene. Still, I’m going to go with my head over my heart and say Penguins in seven. Anderson may not give up much, but the Pens have the high-end skill up front to take advantage of the slimmest of openings. The experience and depth their forwards bring should provide the ultimate edge.