OTTAWA -- It's easy to see how the Ottawa Senators might frustrate the average offensive player, with their 1-3-1 system and their ability to slow down teams in the neutral zone. It is, perhaps, a little more unexpected how well they have been able to do so against Pittsburgh Penguins forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel in the Eastern Conference Final.
"I think it's been a full team buy-in, full team effort by whoever's on the ice," Senators defenseman Chris Wideman said. "All five guys are conscientious of the time and the situation, where the puck is on the ice, and it's not a matter of who's scoring goals for us or who's making the plays. It's a full team buy-in of a 200-foot game, and we're playing defense first."
Crosby, Malkin and Kessel each has one goal in the series, accounting for all of the goals Pittsburgh has scored, one each in Games 1, 2, and 3. It's a big reason the Senators lead the best-of-7 series 2-1.
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Malkin scored in the 2-1 overtime loss in Game 1. Kessel scored the only goal of Game 2. In Game 3, Crosby scored for his first point of the series.
Those three stars have combined for five points (three goals, two assists) in three games.
That isn't exactly the offensive explosiveness for which the Penguins are known. They're hoping for more when they play the Senators in Game 4 at Canadian Tire Centre on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).
So are Crosby, Malkin and Kessel frustrated?
"Maybe a little bit," Senators forward Bobby Ryan said. "It can be a frustrating system to try and get through. When we're making you dump it all the time and you're not able to kind of float through the neutral zone with the puck, it probably gets wearing."
Ryan recalled similar frustrations earlier in his NHL career as an offensive-minded forward when he would play against the New Jersey Devils. It was irritating, and perhaps the Penguins have the same feeling playing against the Senators in this series.
"It's tough," he said. "I think it wears on you mentally and physically. I think a lot of times we throw blankets over you and try not to give you more than 5, 6 feet of space to make a play. They've got some all-world players that are going to find that 5, 6 feet every now and again, and you have to live with that. We collapse back and we take away the second and third chance pretty good."
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It's possible the Penguins are feeling the same way Ryan did when he played against the Devils.
"They were able to keep you outside all night, and you felt like you had the puck all night, but you wound up with two shots and a minus-1 somehow every time you went in there," Ryan said. "Looking back through my years, that was always the toughest challenge, playing New Jersey."
In Game 3, Crosby had two shots on goal, including his power-play goal in the third period, and was minus-3. Malkin had one shot on goal and no points. Kessel had three shots on goal and one assist.
None had a very productive or, one would think, enjoyable evening.
"I can't speak for them, whether they're frustrated or not, but we play a tight system," Senators forward Zack Smith said. "I think we limit our offensive chances that we let the other team get, a lot more than maybe most other teams. That might tend to get frustrating, but I'm sure it's nothing that the Penguins haven't seen."
Even though the Penguins overwhelmed the Senators offensively in the last part of the second period and through three-quarters of the third in Game 2, they scored once. They didn't break through or necessarily solve the Senators' defensive system. And they certainly didn't test goaltender Craig Anderson enough.
The Penguins haven't come close to generating the offense they need to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
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"That's a testament to a little bit of the system, but mostly [Anderson]," Ryan said. "[Anderson] is playing incredible back there. He's giving us a chance every night. I think in Game 2 we didn't reward him and we felt like that was on us, and we came out and had a good start [in Game 3] because of it. But he's been an absolute rock back there."
And they have been rocks on defense by playing their system and frustrating the Penguins, especially Crosby, Malkin and Kessel. The question, and perhaps the key to the series, is whether the Penguins can fight through their frustration, solve the 1-3-1, and become their dynamic offensive selves.
Game 4, and more answers, awaits.