By Sarah Kwak
When the Senators had a parade of players hauled on to the injured reserve, they were expected to sink. When they dropped five in a row in early April, people thought their postseason hopes were gone. And yet Ottawa found ways to win games, make it to the playoffs, make it past the first round.
Well, after a season of exceeding expectations and proving doubters wrong, Ottawa finally reached the end of its line; after 58 games, the Senators just could not muster any more of their magic this year, and their surprisingly excellent season ended Friday night as they fell to Pittsburgh, 6-2, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Captain Daniel Alfredsson’s remarks after Game 4 — he had intimated that the end was imminent for his team, that he didn’t think it was likely his Senators could come back — turned out to be spot on. “With their depth and power play right now, you know, it doesn’t look too good,” Alfredsson said.
Maybe he was being defeatist, a little fatalistic; the comments did seem to come printed on a white flag. But at the end of the day, Alfredsson’s analysis was accurate. Pittsburgh overwhelmed Ottawa with its seemingly limitless scoring depth. Ultimately, the Senators just couldn’t keep pace with the Penguins’ offense, and not even Ottawa’s Vezina-caliber goalie, Craig Anderson, could keep the muzzle on them.
Some more observations from the series clincher for Pittsburgh:
• Ottawa coach Paul MacLean was succinct in his postgame remarks after Game 4 on Wednesday. “I think everything’s right here,” he said, holding the stat sheet. “Seven to three. Uh … See you in Pittsburgh. We’re going to Pittsburgh, and we’re coming to play. Have a good night.” Well, they came to Pittsburgh, yes. But by the looks of the first ten minutes of Game 5, one could argue if they came to play. Halfway through the first period, the Senators had only put up two shots, while the Penguins jumped out to an early lead when Brenden Morrow deflected in a puck at 6:25. Although the Sens finished the period with ten shots, they only had maybe one or two legitimate scoring chances on the Penguins. It wasn’t the kind of desperate play expected of a team on the ropes. It was the kind of play you expect from a team already resigned to defeat.
• Things didn’t get much easier for Ottawa. The Senators took too many penalties, which disrupted any momentum they could possibly build. Eventually, the Penguins made them pay, scoring a power-play goal 7:38 into the second. James Neal, who scored two in Game 4, punched in a puck that was lost in Anderson’s skates. It was the first of three the winger would score Friday night. Neal would finish the night with four points. After he was sidelined and banged up for the first-round series against the Islanders, Neal is showing his immense worth in the Penguins’ lineup. He finished the second round with nine total points.
• Speaking of depth, Neal’s four-point night Friday brings him to ten points for the postseason, one of six Penguins with at least that number. Keep in mind, the team has played just 11 games. The Bruins are the only team that’s close to that mark, having four players with at least ten points thus far. But Pittsburgh has gotten offensive contributions from top to bottom. All but three Penguins have at least a point this postseason. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, Kris Letang, and Neal, of course, are huge offensive weapons — all of them. But the Penguins also have gotten so much from Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, and Paul Martin. Even a player like Matt Cooke, who isn’t exactly known to be a skilled playmaker, made the hustle play to set up Morrow’s goal in the first.
• Boston still needs to win one last game against New York, but barring catastrophe, we’re looking at a Pittsburgh-Boston Eastern Conference final. Pittsburgh, of course, brings so much offensive firepower, but how will that hold up against Boston’s smothering defense? If the Bruins’ three injured veteran defensemen are ready to come back into the lineup, they will, as a whole, present the most formidable challenge Pittsburgh has faced.
• Was this Alfredsson’s last game? The Senators’ captain wasn’t tipping his hand immediately after the game, but he spoke about how much he enjoyed this season and the unexpectedly strong group they put together. The speculation about his future will run rampant for the next several months, but with 2014 being an Olympic year, and given how successful Ottawa really was this year, despite all of the injuries and low expectations, one more year might look pretty good come August.