Four years have passed since the Penguins and Ottawa Senators opened the 2007 Eastern Conference playoffs as polar opposites. Ottawa entered that series a battle-tested group with plenty of playoff experience, while the Penguins were postseason novices.
The Senators laid the Blitzkrieg attack during Game 1 of that series, jumping out to a 2-0 lead 6:38 into the first period as they easily skated away with a 6-3 victory.
While the Penguins were able to squeeze out a 5-3 win in Game 2, the Senators won three straight contests, including two at Mellon Arena, to dispose Pittsburgh in just five games.
As disappointing as that defeat was for the Penguins, it served as a springboard to back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances, winning the championship in 2009. Included in that run of success was an opening-round sweep of the Senators in the 2008 rematch.
Now, with the puck set to be dropped here in the third meeting between the two teams in the past four seasons, the shoe is on the other foot for the Senators.
Pittsburgh enters the series having participated in 44 postseason games over the past two years, while Ottawa features a lineup which will include two defensemen, Erik Karlsson and Matt Carkner, along with sophomore netminder Brian Elliott, making their postseason debuts.
Perhaps nobody knows what that trio, particularly Elliott, is going through than the Penguins Marc-Andre Fleury
, who was the masked man under siege four years ago.
“It seems like not too long ago that I was in his shoes,” Fleury said. “I was a little bit more nervous. It just seemed like everything was being played at a faster pace and that got the emotions going.”
Fleury was able to eventually calm his nerves. After spotting the Senators six goals in the first game, he allowed just 12 the rest of the way against a vaunted Ottawa offensive attack. Fleury says the inexperienced Senators will improve throughout the series as a result of the on-the-job training they will be force-fed.
“I think just playing,” said Fleury of how long it takes to feel comfortable. “I can’t answer with a time frame. The more you play the more comfortable you get.”
Ottawa’s leading goal scorer, Mike Fisher, believes that his young goaltender will be able to rise to the challenge against the Penguins, even if Elliott’s current resume does not match that of Fleury’s.
“There’s no question that there is a lot more pressure in the playoffs and a lot more on the line,” Fisher said. “(Elliott) hasn’t experienced it like their goaltender has, but with that being said, it’s still a game. He has had a great year. He has shown that he has improved throughout the season, and we believe that he’s going to be great in the playoffs.”
Ottawa has every reason to have faith in Elliott’s ability to backstop them to a championship. While Wednesday night marks Elliott’s NHL postseason debut, the 25-year-old has won a championship as recently as 2006, when he led the University of Wisconsin to the 2006 national title.
“Brian has shown in the past that he is going to be very successful in the playoffs with the NCAA championship,” Ottawa head coach Cory Clouston said. “He had a lot of success there, so we talk about experience, but we’ve also seen a lot of goaltending where a young guy comes in and takes the team right to the Finals.
There’s no question that there is a lot more pressure in the playoffs and a lot more on the line. (Elliott) hasn’t experienced it like their goaltender has, but with that being said, it’s still a game. He has had a great year. He has shown that he has improved throughout the season, and we believe that he’s going to be great in the playoffs. - Mike Fisher
“Whether he wins the (Conn) Smythe or the Stanley Cup, there are numerous situations where we’ve seen that. You go back over the years, and there are a lot of goaltenders who come in and play very, very well. We expect Brian to play well, and we’re going to give him a lot of support and stay with our structured team game.”
“Brian has been around for a while,” Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson said. “He won’t have any problem adjusting (to the playoffs). This is what you play for. You live for this and you just make the most of it.”
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby
says the team doesn’t plan to change their strategy facing Elliott despite his inexperience.
“I don’t think we are going to try to rattle him,” Crosby said. “He has done a good job. We are going to try to do the things that it takes to score goals. I don’t think that changes.”
Doing what it takes for the Penguins to score goals will also include working against a defensive core which boasts a 19-year-old rookie in Karlsson, along with 29-year-old Carkner, stepping into the postseason for the first time.
“Every game is an important game,” Karlsson said. “We just have to go out there and play as hard as we can every day and do the job as best as we can. The more I have played here the more I have felt confident about the way I have played the game.”
Karlsson says he feels confident he can get the job done for the Senators because of the experience he gained playing back home in Sweden the past few seasons.
“I have 10 playoff games from back in Sweden on my resume so I don’t understand why I should be nervous now,” Karlsson said. “Now is not the time to be nervous either.”
While the media is paying a lot of time trying to figure out the best way for the Penguins to expose Ottawa’s inexperienced defense, Crosby says the best plan is for Pittsburgh to play the game the way they know how.
Crosby says it is more about the Penguins “getting to their game,” as Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma likes to describe it.
“I think no matter who you play you have to play the right way in the playoffs,” Crosby said. “For us, we know what our game looks like. We know what we have to do to be successful. It is a matter of doing it. It is really focusing on those details. They are going to have the same thing in mind. When it’s the playoffs, that’s the challenge you face every night.”