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Five reasons Penguins advanced to conference final

Saturday, 05.25.2013 / 9:13 AM
Shawn P. Roarke  - NHL.com Senior Managing Editor

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins advanced to the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- where they will play the winner of the Boston Bruins vs. New York Rangers series -- with a comprehensive five-game dispatching of the seventh-seeded Ottawa Senators.

As the top seed in the Eastern Conference, Pittsburgh was expected to reach the NHL final four, but the ride has not always been smooth.

There was the meltdown of No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the first round, as well as a more-than-occasional gaffe in the defensive zone. There was a frustrating, last-minute lapse in concentration in Game 3 that allowed Ottawa to tie it on the penalty kill and win in double overtime to give the Senators a short-lived toehold in the series.

But, in the end, the favored Penguins proved too much for the Pesky Senators, who upset the second-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the first round.

Here are five reasons the Penguins are four wins from a third Stanley Cup Final appearance since 2008:

1. Depth charge

Simply, nobody in the Eastern Conference is as deep as the Penguins.

Offensively, they come at you in waves with one line as dangerous as the next. Pittsburgh had eight forwards -- across four lines -- score in the five-game ouster of the Senators. Two forwards -- Sidney Crosby and James Neal -- managed a hat trick. The Penguins scored at least four goals in all but one game of the second round.

And that's just their forwards. Let's not forget about their defensemen. Kris Letang had a series-best nine points, but, more impressively, each of the six defensemen who dressed for Game 5 had at least one assist. That depth on the back line is almost staggering.

"In order to get good offense, you have to play well as a team and we have been doing that as a team," defenseman Douglas Murray said. "When all four lines play well, it creates a lot more room and the other side gets tired. I have been on the other side of that and it's hard to defend skill guys like that when you get tired."

2. Power surge

Pittsburgh's power play is operating with lethal efficiency. The Penguins have 13 power-play goals in 11 postseason games, and it seemed every time they needed a big goal in the second round, it came with a Senators player sitting in the penalty box.

The power-play unit, clicking at a League-best 28.2 percent, is especially dangerous at home. When Neal made it 2-0 with a power-play goal in the second period of Game 5, it marked the eighth straight home game in which the Penguins scored a man-advantage goal.

Pittsburgh scored 22 goals in the series; six came through the power play, scored by five players. And it wasn't like the power play was getting a ton of chances. Pittsburgh received 14 power plays in the series.

3. Vokoun-a-matata

Lost in the hoopla of the offensive pyrotechnics is the job goaltender Tomas Vokoun has done since relieving starter Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the first round against the New York Islanders.

In seven games, Vokoun is 6-1, with his only blemish the double-overtime loss, a 2-1 decision.

Against Ottawa, he was as good as Pittsburgh needed him to be: He stopped 159 of 170 shots. Although he gave up 11 goals, he never allowed the Senators to put a surge together.

For the playoffs, Vokoun has a .941 save percentage and 1.85 goals-against average.

4. Leader of the pack

During the course of the second round, Pittsburgh trailed for 17 minutes, 20 seconds -- and that was in a game they won 7-3. The Penguins never trailed in the Game 3 loss, giving up the tying goal in the last minute of regulation then losing in the second period of sudden death on a goal by Colin Greening.

The Penguins and Senators were tied for 93:57, but Pittsburgh led for long swatches, forcing Ottawa to play catch-up hockey. And, as Senators coach Paul MacLean said, playing catch-up hockey in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is playing losing hockey.

In the end, Pittsburgh led for 218 minutes and 29 seconds, a stunning stranglehold from which Ottawa would not be able to escape.

"This series, all along, I think we have come out well, started really well, put them on their heels," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "Right from the start, it wasn't wait and see. We dictated, got right on our toes. That carried throughout the game. I don't think there [was] a time that we didn't dictate."

5. Staying the Course

Pittsburgh never deviated from its game plan. Even after the loss in Game 3, when a seemingly surefire 3-0 series stranglehold disappeared, the Penguins never abandoned the strategies it believed would deliver a victory.

"I think we have been confident all series against Ottawa," Letang said. "The way we played the first few games, I think we played the right way. We knew that playing a north-south game against them will get us a reward. I think even in the third game we were confident, so going into the fourth game, we were thinking play the same way and we'll get rewarded. Playing the same way is the key."

The Penguins played a simple game, getting the puck behind the Ottawa defense, chasing it, playing physical, and going to the net. It was fundamental hockey, but the results were stunning, a fine payoff for their attention to detail.

"We went right at them from Game 1," said Neal, who scored six goals in the series. "We did all the things to create chances and went to the net, put the puck behind them and wore them down. It's tough to play against when you keep putting it behind their D and getting physical and we did that all series."

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