By, Steve Silverman: While it wasn’t always pretty, the Penguins survived a tough six-game series against the eighth-seeded team in the Eastern Conference.
The Ottawa Senators didn’t have to go through nearly the same amount of stress as they rolled by the second-seeded Montreal Canadiens in five games.
This conference semifinal features two teams with distinctly different makeups. The Penguins are loaded with superstars, and they can fill up the net.
The Senators are strong defensively, but they struggle to score goals.
The team that can impose its will on the other will probably have the best chance of advancing to the conference final.
Where They Stand after First Round
The Penguins went through an angst-ridden first-round series against the New York Islanders. Starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury struggled badly in Games 2 through 4, and after the Islanders evened the series with a 6-4 victory in the fourth game, head coach Dan Bylsma replaced Fleury with Tomas Vokoun.
That move steadied the Penguins, and they won the next two games to escape the humiliation that would have come with a first-round loss to the bottom seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Senators had no such problems in goal. The Senators came into the playoffs as the team with the least productive offense, but they had no problems scoring against the Canadiens.
The Senators took advantage of their opportunities, and they did not let up after the Canadiens suffered a number of nagging injuries.
Head coach Paul MacLean has a hungry team that is not going to be intimidated by the Penguins.
This is a David vs. Goliath type of series. Not only are the Penguins heavy favorites, they have a huge advantage in offensive talent. Head coach Dan Bylsma would love to create a wide-open, high-scoring game because his team has so many more weapons.
However, the Penguins’ inconsistency in goal is an issue. The Islanders were able to exploit this weakness in the first round, and the Senators will try to do the same in this round.
This series could turn ugly because Erik Karlsson suffered his partially torn Achilles when Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke cut him with his skate blade early in the regular season. While the Penguins defended it as a “hockey play” when the two men went into the corner, the injury nearly cost Karlsson the full season.
Head coach Paul MacLean wants his Senators to stand up for themselves, and they may want to assert themselves early in the series.
Players to Watch
Crosby returned to the lineup in the second game of the series against the Islanders, and he scored nine points in five games. However, Crosby was not the dominant player that fans are used to seeing.
He may be back in top form against the Senators, dominating in the offensive zone and creating scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.
In the final game against the Islanders, Malkin showed his all-around skill when he put his body in front of a shot that could have given the Islanders a one-goal lead late in the third period. Malkin appeared completely engaged in that game.
If he continues to play with that kind of commitment, it is difficult to conceive of the Senators slowing him down.
The best offensive defenseman in the league made it back from a torn Achilles in the final days of the regular season. He had one goal and five assists against the Canadiens, and his creativity and offensive instincts make the Senators a much more formidable team.
NHL history is littered with stories of young players who are brought up at the start of the playoffs to give their team a lift. Pageau appears to be filling that role for the Senators. He scored three goals and had two assists in the five-game victory over the Canadiens.
Pageau accelerates well with the puck on his stick, and he will go into the prime goal-scoring areas. He can be an X-factor for the Senators in this series.
Marc-Andre Fleury was brutal in goal for the Penguins through four games, and he was replaced by Tomas Vokoun for Game 5. Fleury had a 3.40 goals-against average and an .891 save percentage. That weak showing came on the heels of a disastrous playoff performance last year, so head coach Dan Bylsma decided to change goalies.
Vokoun recorded a shutout in Game 5 and was solid in the closeout victory in Game 6. Bylsma will likely stay with Vokoun at the beginning of the series against the Sens, but don’t be surprised if Fleury gets a start at some point in the series.
Craig Anderson performed extremely well against the Canadiens in the first round. In addition to his 1.80 GAA and his .950 save percentage, Anderson was consistent in the regular season and is clearly one of the best goalies in the NHL.
He is nearly always in the proper position. Anderson understands what the shooters want to do, and he has excellent anticipation.
While a strong case could be made for the Senators having a huge edge in goal over the Penguins, the biggest mismatch belongs to the Penguins.
They have a plethora of offensive talent. While they are led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, they can turn to Jarome Iginla, James Neal, Pascal Dupuis, Tyler Kennedy and Kris Letang to make big plays on offense.
The Senators can’t play a wide-open game if they are going to have a chance. Even if they can slow the game down, they still have to find a way to make offensive plays in key situations.
Erik Karlsson certainly can do that from the blue line, but does Daniel Alfredsson have enough left in the tank at this point to play consistently? They have decent talent in Jakob Silfverberg, Kyle Turris and Sergei Gonchar, but they seem to come up woefully short when compared to the Penguins.
Pittsburgh Will Win If…
There’s always a certain amount of nerves that are a part of any first-round series. However, once a favored team wins in the opening round, nerves tend to be less of a factor as the playoffs move forward.
That’s good for the Penguins. They will also have a much more comfortable Crosby back in the lineup. Once he gets his legs back—and he’s close to that level—the Penguins should be able to score a minimum of three goals per game.
That’s more than enough for the Penguins to win in four or five games.
However, the question is the goaltending. While Vokoun performed much better than Fleury in goal, there’s no guarantee that he will continue to play consistently. If the Penguins get decent goaltending, they should win the series.
Ottawa Will Win If…
The Senators can play their best hockey, and it won’t allow them to beat their opponent if the Penguins also play their best game.
So, the Senators must take the Penguins out of their game with hard-hitting physical play with the hope that they can draw the Penguins into foolish penalties.
The Sens don’t have much offensive firepower, but they scored more than enough goals against the Canadiens because they went to the dirty areas and created traffic in front of Carey Price and Peter Budaj.
Ottawa must be opportunistic on the offensive end, and Anderson must be stellar in goal in order for Ottawa to have a chance at pulling off the upset.
The Penguins should win this series in five games.
They should get full production from Crosby and Malkin, and the Sens simply don’t have any players who can hope to match their production.
If the Penguins don’t give up a slew of easy goals, the Senators are not going to have enough talent to win more than a game against the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference.