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Return trip? Pens road to repeat begins vs. Sens

by Staff

One year older, wiser and more experienced, the Pittsburgh Penguins return to defend their Stanley Cup title with plenty of familiar faces and Sidney Crosby scoring goals like never before.

"Sid The Kid" tied Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos for the Rocket Richard Trophy, scoring 51 times, the first time Crosby has reached the 50-goal mark.

The Penguins also surrendered more goals than they did a year ago, so the onus is on Pittsburgh to play a high-tempo offensive game, something it has done to some success. But the Penguins also have to combat some maddening inconsistency that plagued them during the regular season.

Few gave the Senators much hope heading into the season, especially after Dany Heatley demanded a trade. But the Senators persevered, adapted and overcame, and challenged the Buffalo Sabres for the Northeast Division title.

Still, there are concerns as the Sens allowed 13 more goals than they scored, which is not a good formula when facing Crosby and Co.

There may not be a deeper team down the middle of the ice in the Stanley Cup Playoffs than the Pittsburgh Penguins, who feature Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal as the centers on their top three lines.

Crosby is considered by many to be the best player in the game today and proved his worth by tying for the Rocket Richard Trophy with Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos (51 goals) and finishing tied for second in the Art Ross Trophy race with 109 points.

Malkin, meanwhile, won the Ross last season and then showed his true worth in a dominating playoff run. Staal, often the forgotten member of this terrific trio, is among the best shut-down centers in the League, but is not immune from scoring the big goal here and there.

For the Penguins, the concern rests with the players that surround the strong core of centers. Max Talbot showed his worth last year in the Stanley Cup Final, scoring the Cup-winning goal in Game 7 against Detroit. Chris Kunitz, when healthy, has also shown some chemistry with Crosby. Bill Guerin is a veteran that has won Stanley Cups at both ends of his career and Ruslan Fedotenko is no stranger to playoff heroics.

The biggest question surrounding the Penguin forwards is the fate of Alex Ponikarovsky, who was brought in at the trade deadline to be a scoring option on one of the top two lines. The former Maple Leaf, though, has struggled during his time in Pittsburgh and will need to be better this spring.

Even with Milan Michalek out of the lineup for nine games with a left knee injury, the Senators never missed a beat on offense with rookie Peter Regin filling in alongside Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson on the top line.

Spezza, in fact, might actually be playing his best hockey right now, having scored 4 goals and 14 points during his past eight regular-season games. Alfredsson had 22 points in 18 games since the Olympic break and Regin, a rookie, had 4 goals, 8 points and a plus-6 rating during his last 10 matches.

Alfredsson leads the team with 51 assists and 71 points and Spezza put up 23 goals, including a team-leading 11 on the power-play, and 57 points.

Still, the Senators are much more than a one-line team this season. Mike Fisher, who finished with 209 hits and a career-best 25 goals (10 on the power-play), 28 assists and 53 points, Jarkko Ruutu, Michalek (34 points) and Matt Cullen, acquired in a trade with Carolina on Feb. 12, are perfectly capable of picking up some of the offensive slack.

Alex Kovalev, the team's prized free-agent acquisition last summer, will miss the remainder of the season after tearing the ACL in his left knee during the season's final week.

Pittsburgh is among the most porous of the 16 teams that made the postseason, allowing goals at an alarming rate for an elite team. In fact, the team allowed 237 goals this season, a number passed by only one other Eastern Conference playoff team.

The defense has been made over since the team hoisted the Cup last June and both Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi -- big-bodied, shutdown-minded defenders -- were allowed to move on to new teams.

Now, the Penguins are lacking the physical presence they had around the net last season with Brooks Orpik being the one player still designed to fit the role of a banging presence. Orpik is the only defenseman among the team's top five hitters.

This team can generate a good deal of offense from the points, though. Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, Jordan Leopold and Alex Goligoski are all offensive threats from the points.

There may not be another team in the League prone to blocking more shots and delivering bone-rattling body checks than the Ottawa Senators. Between Andy Sutton (204 blocked shots), acquired in a trade with the New York Islanders on March 2, Anton Volchenkov (172), Chris Phillips (142), Matt Carkner (125) and Chris Campoli (78), the Senators have cornered the market on getting in front of opposing shooters.

The team's leading scorer in the back end, Filip Kuba (28 points) had back surgery to repair a herniated disc on Wednesday and is expected to be sidelined at least a month. Fortunately for the Sens, Swedish rookie Erik Karlsson, 19, has done his part in his first season to pick up the offensive burden. Karlsson, Ottawa's first-round choice in 2008, has notched 26 points while averaging 20 minutes a night.

It's tough to question Marc-Andre Fleury after he held strong throughout last season's playoffs, playing phenomenal back-to-back games after a Game 5 loss put his team on the ropes against Detroit in the Stanley Cup Final.

Fleury has done it all in his career, already. He has made it to each of the past two Stanley Cup Final showdowns and was also named to Canada's gold medal winning Olympic team, although he did not play in the tournament.

Simply, he is mentally unflappable with uncanny athletic talents. So, discount some of Fleury's troublesome numbers this year -- 2.65 goals-against average and .905 save percentage -- and know this: The Pittsburgh Penguins have the utmost of faith in Fleury -- no matter the situation.

Brian Elliott is your likely starter and will be making his NHL playoff debut for the Senators after going 29-18-4 with a 2.57 goals-against average and .909 save percentage in 55 appearances this season. Pascal Leclaire, who missed 16 games with a fractured cheekbone and nine more with a concussion, finished 12-14-2 with a 3.20 GAA and .887 save percentage.

It's hard to believe that Dan Bylsma is still a novice coach at the NHL level. Heck, he coached just 25 NHL regular-season games as a mid-season replacement before guiding Pittsburgh on its fanciful run to the franchise's third Stanley Cup title.

Yet, despite his youth and inexperience, Bylsma has something that many coaches with more experience don't have -- a Stanley Cup ring. In fact only three other coaches in the postseason -- New Jersey's Jacques Lemaire, Philadelphia's Peter Laviolette and Detroit's Mike Babcock -- have coached teams to hockey's Promised Land.

So, Bylsma's experience under fire has to count for something, right? Plus, he is unafraid to mix things up with his lines to find a spark when things become stagnant and showed a Midas touch in that regard last spring.

Cory Clouston was in his second season with the American Hockey League's Binghamton Senators when it was announced on Feb. 2, 2009 that he would become the ninth coach in the history of the Ottawa Senators. He walked into a difficult situation, but led the club to a 19-11-4 finish, including nine-straight victories on home ice, to make a late run. This year, he'll continue to preach his brand of tight-checking hockey during his first stint in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With the talent Pittsburgh has to populate its man-advantage units, it is shocking that the Penguins are firmly in the middle of the pack when it comes to power-play efficiency. And, it's not like the Penguins don't know what to do with the extra attacker as evidenced by the fact they have a success rate above 20 percent at home. But, on the road, the Penguins have been utterly anemic in power-play situations.

Fortunately, their penalty kill has been great all season, and it remains among the most productive units in the playoffs. It is a safe bet, though, that Bylsma would like to tax this unit a little less in the postseason after Pittsburgh spent much of the regular season taking too many penalties for his liking.

Ottawa's power play ranked No. 21 at home and No. 16 on the road, finishing a lackluster No. 21 overall with a 16.9 percent success rate. The Senators ranked No. 25 in power-play opportunities, earning 290 chances. The Senators were seventh-best at killing penalties on the road and ninth-best at home, finishing No. 9 overall at 84.3 percent.

Penguins, Jordan Staal -- Many believe that Staal should win the Selke Trophy as the League's best defensive forward. Count Bylsma, the Penguins coach, among that growing legion. "There is not a center in the League I would trust more in those situations," Bylsma said during the final week of the regular season. Staal is an elite penalty killer and is deadly in a shut-down role against the opposition's top line -- especially on home ice when Bylsma can dictate the matchups. Staal will be Pittsburgh's first line of defense throughout this series.

Senators, Daniel Alfredsson -- Following a one-year hiatus, Senators forward Daniel Alfredsson is back where he belongs -- in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. "Alfie" played a major role in helping the club reach the Cup Final in 2007, recording 14 goals and 22 points in 20 games. The team will look to their captain for leadership and offensive production in the clutch again this season.

Penguins will win if ... They play the game they played this past postseason in winning the Cup. Pittsburgh has the high-end talent -- Crosby, Malkin, Gonchar, Fleury -- to tip games in its favor. But, the Penguins must find the grit game -- delivered by players like Staal, Orpik, Guerin and Craig Adams and the like -- that put them over the top this past June.

Senators will win if... they continue playing the team game that enabled them to fashion a franchise-record 11-game winning streak at the end of the season. Additionally, it's imperative that No. 1 center Jason Spezza resume his torrid scoring pace. The defense must alos continue its intimidating play within its own end, while goalie Brian Elliott needn't be spectacular, but consistent. Staff Writers Mike Morreale and Shawn Roarke contributed to this report.

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