OTTAWA (CP) - Count Gary Roberts among the believers in the Ottawa Senators.
For years a thorn in Ottawa's side as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the veteran Pittsburgh Penguins winger sees a different Senators team moving to the second round after wrapping up a five-game series win Thursday night. "They've been through it before and they know what it takes now," said Roberts. "They definitely played the best hockey I've seen them play in years."
The high-flying Senators can kick back and relax for a few days and await their second-round opponent, likely the New York Rangers or New Jersey Devils, after disposing of the upstart Penguins with relative ease Thursday night, a 3-0 win in Game 5 that terminated a series that was never that close.
"We've got nothing to be ashamed of," said Penguins head coach Michel Therren. "We got beat by a great hockey team that has a chance to win the Stanley Cup."
Dany Heatley, Antoine Vermette and Chris Kelly scored second-period goals and the Senators advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the second straight season and fifth time in franchise history, cheered loudly to the dressing room by 20,179 fans at Scotiabank Place that hope this is finally their year.
"We think we did a lot of good things and we're going to take a lot of positives into Round 2," said Senators centre Mike Fisher, who steamrolled Penguins players all night long.
Ray Emery made 20 saves for his first career playoff shutout and got the better of Marc-Andre Fleury in the goalie matchup, although the Pens netminder was the busier of the two in all five games.
"Ray Emery had to be the star of the series as the series went on," said Senators head coach Bryan Murray. "Him and Alfredsson were the two guys that got this team to where we are."
Sidney Crosby's sophomore season is over, meanwhile, although he could possibly join Canada at the IIHF world championship in Moscow. Sid The Kid's first career playoffs weren't too bad at all, the 19-year-old superstar clearly the best player from the losing side in this series, rising to the occasion and giving the Senators all they could handle with five points (3-2) in five games.
"I think Sidney Crosby will probably get lots of chances in his career to win a championship," said Murray. "He's that kind of player. He'll take a lot of guys along with him. He'll help them a lot more than they'll help him I can guarantee you that."
But credit Senators defencemen Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov for doing an excellent checking job on the NHL's leading scorer.
"Those two guys deserve a big pat on the back," said Murray.
While Crosby shined, 20-year-old rookie Russian Evgeni Malkin did not, his four assists in the series camouflaging what was really an invisible effort. But like the rest of his young teammates, he'll be better for the experience and back for plenty more playoff games in years to come.
"It was a big turnaround (from last year)," said Crosby, whose club improved 47 points in the standings. "There's no doubt that we'll be proud of the way we prepared for this season and really came together. The playoffs, obviously, it's tough. Maybe it's something (losing) that needs to happen for us to win."
But the time is now for the talented Senators, whose four-line attack and deep-six blue-line was way too much to handle for Pittsburgh. Kelly, the third-line centre, had three goals in the series, just one example of Ottawa's priceless depth.
"Four lines played pretty much the whole series for us, we didn't have to really shorten the bench a lot, which pretty much kept everyone fresh," said Alfredsson, who was terrific in this series. "We could do that more than Pittsburgh. We got the lead in most of the games and that made life a lot easier."
After a scoreless first period Thursday that began with Pittsburgh wasting back-to-back 5-on-3 power plays, 50-goal man Heatley opened the scoring 1:08 into the middle frame, one-timing an Alfredsson pass on a power play. Heatley hadn't scored since Game 1 and Murray thinks the goal relaxed his team.
"I think so, especially a guy like Dany Heatley getting it for us, he had struggled a little bit to get points in the series," said Murray. "For him to score, it just seemed like the weight of the world came off his shoulders. I think we started skating at that point and got really aggressive and played to win."
Then it was the Mike Fisher show, the centre hammering Jordan Staal and Michel Ouellet with big hits and then nearly scoring, but Fleury robbed him with a big glove save.
Vermette, on a nice feed from Chris Neil, made it 2-0 with a breakaway goal at 6:20 while Kelly had the fans back on their feet with 2:05 left in the period, jumping on a loose puck and beating Fleury stick side to make it 3-0.
Notes: The Devils are tied 2-2 in their series with Tampa. Should the Lightning win, Ottawa draws the Rangers. A Devils win sets up an Ottawa-New Jersey series. Should the Islanders come back and beat Buffalo and Tampa beats New Jersey, then it's Sens-Isles in the second round ... Tough guy Georges Laraque was back in the Penguins lineup for the first time since Game 1, replacing forward Nils Ekman. Joining Ekman in the press box were forwards Ronald Petrovicky and Chris Thorburn as well as defencemen Joel Kiatkowski and Alain Nasreddine ... Winger Patrick Eaves (head injury) remained out for Ottawa while tough guy Brian McGrattan and defenceman Lawrence Nycholat were healthy scratches.