The Pittsburgh Penguins had to work a lot harder than anyone thought they would to get past the New York Islanders in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their next hurdle figures to be even tougher.
While the Penguins had to go to overtime of Game 6 in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series, the Ottawa Senators were watching on TV after closing out the second-seeded Montreal Canadiens in five games on Thursday.
Though the Senators were seeded seventh, they didn’t play like a lower seed. They dominated the Canadiens with a physical style of play, one much like the Islanders used to make life miserable for the Penguins in the first round. Pittsburgh had to win back-to-back games after New York earned a split of the first four, and had to overcome three one-goal deficits before winning Game 6 in overtime.
Pittsburgh swept Ottawa in their three-game season series. On Jan. 27, Evgeni Malkin registered the winning goal in a 2-1 shootout victory. It came against Ben Bishop, who was later traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
On Feb. 13, the Penguins won 4-2 on the strength two goals by James Neal and one each from Pascal Dupuis and Sidney Crosby.
On April 22, the Penguins won 3-1. Dustin Jeffrey, Jarome Iginla and Taylor Kennedy had the goals for the Penguins, and backup goalie Tomas Vokoun stopped 34 of 35 shots to outduel Craig Anderson.
That doesn't mean the Penguins expect an easy time in round two.
"We've played them in the past and they always battle," Dupuis said. "Their building gets shaking at times. They're a team that obviously played well in the first round and beat Montreal, [a] seven [seed[ beat a two [seed]. So it should be a good matchup."
The Penguins will have to find ways to solve Anderson if they hope to win the conference semifinal series. Anderson was Ottawa’s best player against Montreal, stopping 171 of 180 shots for a .950 save percentage. If he does that again, the Senators could pull their second upset of the playoffs.
Ottawa will have to shut down Pittsburgh's big guns. Sidney Crosby had three goals and nine points in five games against the Islanders after returning from a broken jaw; Iginla scored twice and added seven assists; and Pascal Dupuis scored five times in the six games.
The Penguins will have the advantage of playing the first two games at Consol Energy Center, but the Senators showed during the first round that playing on the road didn't bother them. They won Game 1 in Montreal and closed the series with a 6-1 victory at Bell Centre in Game 5.
Pittsburgh got a tougher-than-expected test from the Islanders, whose speedy forwards put a lot of heat on the Penguins' defense. Captain Sidney Crosby said his team can expect more of the same from the Senators.
"They're playing good hockey; they're pretty similar [to the Islanders]," Crosby said. "They have some fast forwards, a lot of skill, a lot of speed. We're going to have to do a better job of keeping the puck out of our end and out of our net."
The Senators and Penguins met three previous times in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with Ottawa winning a first-round series in five games in 2007 and Pittsburgh sweeping in the opening round in 2008, with each team using its victory as a starting point to a trip to the Final. They met in the first round again in 2010, with Pittsburgh winning in six games, including three victories at Ottawa.
As if the series needed any extra juice, there figures to be plenty of hard feelings from the Feb. 13 meeting --that was the night when Penguins forward Matt Cooke delivered a hit to Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson that resulted in the reigning Norris Trophy winner suffering a 70-percent tear of his Achilles tendon. Karlsson missed 31 games but returned right before the end of the regular season.
Karlsson showed no ill effects from the injury during the opening round. He was one of the Senators' best players in the first-round upset of the Canadiens. He shared the team lead in scoring, registering a goal and five assists playing almost 26 minutes per game.
Will the Cooke-Karlsson storyline play a part in the series?
"Hopefully. Why not, you know? We've been through that road before," Dupuis said. "We went there and won the game [on April 22]. So why not?"
Anderson figures to play every game for the Senators. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma isn't saying who he’ll use in goal, but he switched from Marc-Andre Fleury to Vokoun before Game 5 and was rewarded with two superb efforts from the 36-year-old. Fleury has won a Stanley Cup, but Vokoun has the hot hand, at least for now.