OTTAWA - The Ottawa Senators played their ultimate, and likely final, trump card. And again the Pittsburgh Penguins had an answer.
Even the courageous return of captain Daniel Alfredsson wasn't enough for the Senators on Monday night. Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal scored 1:18 apart early in the third period and the Penguins beat the Senators 4-1 to take a commanding 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven, Eastern Conference quarter-final series.
"Their heart and soul was back tonight," Penguins head coach Michel Therrien said of Alfredsson. "It certainly got the crowd into it. For sure, the first 10 minutes the emotion was on their side. And that's normal. But I like the way we responded.
"We didn't panic. And (Pens goalie Marc-Andre) Fleury was good, that's what you look for from your goalie. He's got to make those key saves because you know they're going to pressure him."
"It was a tough one for sure and a test," added Crosby.
The 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and 1975 New York Islanders are the only NHL teams to have erased 3-0 series deficits. And this Senators team certainly doesn't look up to it.
The Penguins can smell a sweep and they'll go for it Wednesday night here at Scotiabank Place (7 p.m. ET).
"You can't take anything for granted especially in the playoffs and espeically with this team where they have a lot of guys that need one chance for it to go the other way so we have a lot of respect for them," cautioned Crosby.
Marian Hossa and Maxime Talbot also scored for the Penguins, who survived a strong start from a Senators team buoyed by Alfredsson's return and calmly took over once the third period rolled around.
"I think we expected that (emotion from the Sens), especially early I think we did a good job of weathering the storm," said Crosby, who also added an assist. "Fleury was a big part of that. Marc really held us in it and made some big saves."
Crosby broke a 1-1 tie just 12 seconds into the final period, busting in on a 2-on-1 break and snapping a shot that beat Gerber stick side.
"When you let a star get a break like that they usually score and he did," said Murray. "From that point on it didn't look like we had the same energy and they really got going."
Staal made it a two-goal lead at 1:30 when he crashed the net and re-directed a Kristopher Letang pass behind a helpless Gerber.
"In the second we had a lot of chances and we knew sooner or later they'd go in," said Staal, who had a strong game. "We got those two quick goals in the third and things changed pretty quickly for us. ...
"We knew if we kept playing the way we were playing we'd be fine."
Suddenly the Penguins were in charge and one could hear a pin drop at Scotiabank Place. Just two hours earlier it was delirium as a soldout crowd of 19,961 cheered on an unexpected comeback from Alfredsson, who had been out since April 3 after being injured in a game at Toronto.
The Swedish star, who sustained a knee injury and an upper body injury when felled by Maple Leafs forward Mark Bell, hadn't even practised with his teammates before deciding to take the warm-up and suit up for the game.
"It's unbelievable," Murray said of Alfredsson's return, saying the star was supposed to be out six weeks but talked his way into playing.
He didn't look anywhere close to 100 per cent, gingerly making his way around the ice and trying his best to avoid the high traffic areas. But his team needed him and he answered the call.
"I felt pretty good. I don't think anybody's 100 per cent in the playoffs," said Alfredsson. "I've been trying the last few days to skate and see if I could get to a point where I thought I could help the team and I did and that's why I played."
Nick Foligno had the lone goal for the Senators, who played their best game of the series but still fell short.
"As a team, I don't think we're playing as good as we can," said Alfredsson. "Obviously, we need everybody to be better."
The Senators finally had a strong start for the first time in this series. Ottawa won its share of battles for the puck and finished its checks with more authority. The Penguins would have to pay the price on this night in order to make their skill plays. Senators centre Dean McAmmond hammered Penguins star Evgeni Malkin with a clean but thunderous hit with three minutes to go in the first period.
A scoreless opening period saw the host team outshoot Pittsburgh 14-12 in what was by far its best period of the series at that point.
Foligno gave Ottawa its first lead of the series when he opened the scoring 1:11 into the second period with a highlight reel goal, his first career playoff marker. The rookie settled a bouncing puck at the left faceoff circle and gave Penguins blue-liner Ryan Whitney the dipsy doodle and then beating Marc-Andre Fleury five-hole. Scotiabank Place was rocking.
Talbot dulled some of that buzz in the building when he took a nifty pass from Hossa at the Ottawa blue-line and broke in with a backhand that beat Gerber just inside the post at 5:39. Pittsburgh outhot Ottawa 14-13 in the middle period and slowly but surely began to take over the game.
Crosby and Staal then broke Ottawa's back right off the hop in the third period. Hossa put the result out of doubt with a power-play goal at 8:55.
Fleury stopped 33 of 34 shots while his counterpart Martin Gerber stopped 34 of 38.
Notes: While the Senators got Alfredsson back, the Penguins were without veteran winger Gary Roberts (groin). Roberts missed three months with a broken fibula before playing the last game of the regular season and the first two playoff games, scoring twice in the opener .... Adam Hall, a healthy scratch in the opening two games, took his place in the lineup. Defenceman Darryl Sydor and forwards Jeff Taffe and Kris Beech were healthy scratches ... Forwards Mike Fisher (knee) and Chris Kelly (leg) remained out for Ottawa while forwards Randy Robitaille, Brian McGrattan and Alexander Nikulin and defenceman Luke Richardson were healthy scratches.