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OTTAWA (AP) - Despite a quick exit from last year's playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins showed promising signs of a bright future.
Eliminated in five games by Ottawa in the first round of the 2007 playoffs, Pittsburgh has a great opportunity to get revenge on the Senators.
Led by young superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins take a 3-0 series lead in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal into Game 4 on Wednesday night with an eye on sweeping last year's Stanley Cup finalists out of the playoffs in front of their home crowd at Scotiabank Place.
"It's two different years," Penguins forward Jarko Ruutu said following practice Tuesday. "Last year, the Senators were playing really well going into the playoffs and it was the first year for the Penguins for a while to make the playoffs and we had a young team and didn't know what to expect and it showed. Now, we're more mature and they have a couple of injuries and things aren't going the Senators' way, so we have to take advantage of that."Right wing Georges Laraque agreed that though the first-round opponents remained the same, the two series are difficult to compare. Last year's edition of the Penguins was Pittsburgh's first playoff team since 2001, when Mario Lemieux came out of retirement to help lead the team he owns to the Eastern Conference final.
Laraque said the current edition of the Penguins is reaping the fruits of last year's hard-earned playoff experience.
"Well, last year we had 16 guys that had never played a playoff game and now this year we have more experience and that makes a big difference," Laraque said. "Last year a lot of guys didn't know what to expect and the next thing you know we were down three games in the series. Now there's no reason. Everybody's faced the playoffs, they know what it's like, they know the atmosphere and they seem to be more prepared than they were last year and guys don't seem as intimidated by the playoffs. Experience makes everything."
Along with Crosby and Malkin, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and defenseman Ryan Whitney were among Pittsburgh's promising crop of playoff neophytes that last year's Senators took to school. The value of that experience isn't lost on them.
"It's enormous," Whitney said. "Just being in those type of games where each mistake is magnified and you see the intensity and how each shift can be a game-changer. That's really what taught us what to expect coming in this year."
Fleury is enjoying this year's playoffs a lot more than his postseason debut a year ago, when he had a 3.76 goals-against-average and a .880 save percentage.
"I feel a little more comfortable," said Fleury, who has allowed four goals in three games, including a shutout in the series opener. "Last year maybe I was thinking too much. I know we have a good team. I know we have guys who play well defensively and we can get some goals."
While life among the Penguins was upbeat Wednesday, the mood around Ottawa continues to be one of bewilderment.
Though the Senators began the playoffs without injured captain Daniel Alfredsson and centers Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly, they were already well into a free fall before the postseason began.
Ottawa started the season 15-2, then barely hung on to make the playoffs.
Alfredsson made a surprising return to the lineup in Monday's 4-1 loss and expects to continue playing.
Amid the obvious declarations that his team had to win one game at a time, Senators GM and coach Bryan Murray acknowledged that his administrator's eye will be part of his perspective on Game 4, and any other playoff games Ottawa might take part in this year.
"We've got to look at the players that come to play, work hard and do everything in their power - to their ability level, and I qualify it that way - to help this organization be good going forward, so (Wednesday) night is an indicator of that, without a doubt."
Depending on what coach Murray sees Wednesday night, he may be concentrating on his general manager's duties a lot sooner than he had hoped and expected.