PITTSBURGH - This isn't 2007 for the Ottawa Senators and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It isn't even seven weeks ago, when Ottawa was leading the Eastern Conference and again looked to be a prime Stanley Cup contender and it was Pittsburgh that was scrambling for playoff positioning.
Now, the Penguins are heavily favoured in their first-round playoffs rematch with Ottawa that starts Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, the result of a late-season upheaval in which the Senators began sliding down the standings just as the Penguins began moving up quickly.
When Ottawa rallied from three goals down to beat the Penguins in overtime 4-3 on Feb. 23 in Pittsburgh, the Senators - Stanley Cup finalists last season - led the conference standings. By the end of the season, a closing stretch in which the Senators lost six of their final eight dropped them all the way to seventh place and matched them against Pittsburgh, which won 10 of its last 13 to finish second.
"It's funny - you would have never thought (Ottawa) a month ago. It's funny how it played out," Pittsburgh defenceman Brooks Orpik said after a 2-0 loss Sunday in Philadelphia kept the Penguins from being the top seed in the conference playoffs. "It should be fun. Maybe it will be more satisfying if we can beat them."
That didn't happen last season, when the older and more experienced Senators roughed up the Penguins, making their first playoff appearance in six years, during a five-game series in which Ottawa won the final three. It was a bad matchup for a Penguins team that had only a handful of players with playoff experience, and even youthful stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin couldn't rally them.
This matchup looks to be much different.
The Senators not only are a reeling club - general manager Bryan Murray fired coach John Paddock in late February and put himself in charge - they are a depleted one. Three key forwards, including captain Daniel Alfredsson, are injured and presumably out for a series. Alfredsson has six goals in his last 11 games against Pittsburgh.
And it's the Penguins who are healthy after managing to win their first division title in 10 years, even after goalie Marc-Andre Fleury sat out half the season and reigning NHL MVP Crosby missed a third of it, both with ankle injuries.
"It's payback for us," forward Jordan Staal said. "The guys in this dressing room know we can do it. What better test than Ottawa?"
Even if Ottawa will be without Alfredsson, Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly and, unlike a year ago, also won't have home-ice advantage.
The Senators were 3-1 against Pittsburgh during the season, even though the Penguins' lone win - a 6-5 overtime decision on Thanksgiving night - proved to be their key victory of the season. The Penguins began the season 8-11-2 but, after rallying from two goals down against the Senators, went 39-16-6 in their final 61 games.
"It's really weird how they (the Senators) came out (to begin the season) and they way they finished," Orpik said. "They still have a really good lineup that hasn't changed all that much from last year. The playoffs are a whole new level of hockey."
Even if the Penguins will be favoured to win a series for the first time since defenceman Darius Kasparaitis' overtime game-winner in Buffalo in Game 7 advanced them to the conference final in 2001.
"Last year, they (the Senators) came really hard at us. We were kind of surprised," forward Max Talbot said. "Now we know what to expect. We start in our own building, so I think the guys are pretty confident."