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Pittsburgh vs. Ottawa Preview

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins (33-20-1-67) vs. Ottawa Senators (29-21-4-62)
Where: Mellon Arena

When:
Thursday, January 28, 7 p.m.
Radio:
WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
TV:
FSN Pittsburgh, the game will be broadcast in HD, available on Armstrong 179, Atlantic Broadband 782, Citizen 737, Comcast 226s/774, DISH 428, DirecTV 659 and Verizon Fios 576.

Season Series: Pittsburgh and Ottawa conclude their four-game season series on Thurday at Mellon Arena. The Penguins will be looking to take the series for the first time since 2006-07 after winning two of the first three against the Senators. Pittsburgh scored eight of the first nine goals in an 8-2 victory over Ottawa on Dec. 23 in Pittsburgh. Evgeni Malkin recorded his first hat trick of the season and Bill Guerin (2G-2A) and Chris Kunitz (1G-3A) each tied a franchise record by scoring four points in the second period. Pittsburgh won the first meeting, 4-1, on Oct. 12 at Scotiabank Place. The Penguins scored the final four goals that night, two from Tyler Kennedy and one each from Bill Guerin and Jordan Staal, while Marc-Andre Fleury was superb in net with 30 saves. Ottawa came back to defeat the Penguins, 6-2, on Nov. 19 behind two goals from Chris Phillips and a three-assist night by the future Mrs. Carrie Underwood – Mike Fisher. Guerin has led the way for the Penguins against the Senators with six points (3G-3A).
 
LOWDOWN ON THE SENATORS
Ottawa suffered through a disappointing campaign in 2008-09, winning only 36 games while slipping to fourth place in the Northeast Division, and out of the playoffs for the first time since 1995-96. The Senators had many problems, including the dismissal of head coach Craig Hartsburg on and below-average play between the pipes.

Ottawa began to turn their season around when Cory Clouston came up from the team’s minor-league affiliate, Binghamton of the American Hockey League, to replace Hartsburg. In 34 games under Clouston, who favors the new-school high-tempo philosophy preferred by a lot of the newer bench bosses around the National Hockey League, the Senators posted a 19-11-4 overall record, which projected over an 82-game schedule, would have given them 101 points, a figure that would have been good enough for fourth place in the Eastern Conference in 2008-09.

Thanks to Ottawa’s seven consecutive victories, tied for the longest current winning streak, the Penguins and Senators would meet in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third time in the past four postseasons.
 
NEW FACES
Ottawa elected not to make drastic changes after suffering through their most disappointing season this decade. Instead, the only free agent of note they brought in was former Penguin Alex Kovalev. The enigmatic winger, who won the MVP award at the 2009 NHL All-Star Game playing on a line with Evgeni Malkin, brings 978 career points (407G-571A) and a howitzer left-handed shot to the Senators’ lineup. After a rough beginning with the Senators, Kovalev has been on fire ever since breaking out with a four-goal, one-assist performance against the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 3. In the past 13 games, including that contest, Kovalev has picked up 15 points (6G-9A). He has a current seven-game point streak. His improved play began right about the time the Russians left the thee-time Olympian off the 2010 squad. He ranks third on the Senators with 37 points (13G-24A) in 51 games.

Dany Heatley’s insistence on leaving Canada’s capital city brought two exciting finishers to the attack in Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo, from the San Jose Sharks. Michalek spent a majority of last season playing with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, with whom the 24-year-old scored 23 goals and 34 assists in 77 contests. Michalek leads the Senators with 18 goals in 47 games and his 24 points are fourth-most. Cheechoo has seen his production slip three-straight seasons after winning the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals with 56 in 2005-06. Cheechoo lit the lamp only 12 times in 66 games for the Sharks last season. His goal-scoring drought has continued in ’09-10, as Cheechoo has only five goals through 54 games.

Forward Peter Regin and defenseman Erik Karlsson are a couple of youngsters who have added skill to the Senators’ lineup. Regin began seeing increased ice time following Jason Spezza’s MCL tear in December. In the 22 games since Spezza’s injury, Regin has picked up 14 (5G-9A) of his 19 points on the season. He is currently centering a line with Kovalev and Ryan Shannon. Regin had a cup of coffee with Ottawa last season, scoring two points (1G-1A) in 11 games, but starred for Binghamton, scoring 18 times and assisting on 29 others while posting a plus-15 mark in 56 games. Karlsson, only 19, was the Senators first-round selection in 2008. The Swedish-born defenseman has improved throughout the season. Since his rating bottomed out at minus-13 after he was on the ice for two goals against the Penguins on Dec. 23, he has rebounded to post a solid plus-5 mark over his past 14 games, including 10 contests where he was either even or a plus. He has also played 20 or more minutes five times over the stretch after surpassing that total only five times in 23 games prior.
 
FORWARDS
As it has for the past 13 seasons, the Senators offense begins with Daniel Alfredsson. The Ottawa captain once again led the Senators in scoring in 2008-09, reaching the 70-point mark for the eighth-straight season. Alfredsson finished with 74 points (24G-50A), one more than Jason Spezza (See Player Spotlight below). Alfredsson has picked up seven points (4G-3A) over his past five games and he leads the Senators in assists (27) and points (41). Helping to carry the slack for the Senators when Alfredsson recently missed nine games with a shoulder injury he sustained against the Penguins on Dec. 23 is Mike Fisher. The two-way center ranks second behind Alfredsson with 39 points (17G-22A) in 52 games. He is nine points away from tying his career high of 48 set in the 2006-07 campaign.

Milan Michalek has a team-leading 18 goals and his 24 points ranks fourth on the squad despite the fact that he has gone ice cold with just four points (3G-1A) over his previous 22 contests. Although he has struggled offensively the past six weeks, Michalek has been a great all-around fit for Ottawa with six power-play goals, two shorthanded tallies and three game-winners.

Two players whose offensive game has shown the most improvement over the course of the season are third-line center Chris Kelly and young winger Nick Foligno. Kelly is one of the league’s better shutdown pivots, giving them two players of such an ilk to match against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He has also regained his offensive touch after a slow start to the season as he posted 12 points (6G-6A) over a 17-game stretch between Dec. 16 - Jan. 16. Folgino, a former first-round pick in 2006, has picked up four assists over his past four games while skating on the top line with Alfredsson and Fisher. For the season he ranks sixth on the team with 21 points (7G-14A) in 46 games. He also leads the Senators with a plus-11 rating.

Chris Neil teams with another former Penguin, Jarkko Ruutu, to provide Ottawa with physical, in-your-face agitation on the bottom two lines. Neil ranks second on the Senators with 151 hits despite missing 14 games with a knee injury. Ruutu has displayed a scoring touch for the Senators with eight goals and nine assists in 54 games.
 
DEFENSEMEN
Veterans Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips have had many great battles with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Penguins’ skilled forwards since the end of the lockout. Both offer stay-at-home presences along the back end, although each offer above-average offensive instincts. Phillips is the more highly regarded of the two being a former No. 1-overall selection by Ottawa in 1996. He took a few years to grow into his 6-foot-3, 216-pound frame, but has now developed into a rock for the Senators, playing 81 or more games four of the past five seasons. Phillips, who ranks first among all Ottawa blueliners with a plus-7 rating, broke open a close game between the two teams on Nov. 19 with two third-period goals to stretch Ottawa’s lead to 5-1.

Volchenkov is regularly among the league leaders in hits when all is said and done. Powerfully built within his 6-foot-1 stature, Volchenkov is one of the league’s most underrated defensive defensemen. Volchenkov is another one of those players who you have to keep your head up against because he is not afraid to step up in open-ice. He has 111 hits in 39 games.

Filip Kuba, who arrived prior to last season alongside Alexandre Picard in the trade which sent Andrej Meszaros to Tampa Bay, has been both a minutes-eater and the Senators’ top offensive defenseman. He leads the team with 23:17 average time on ice and has picked up 20 points (3G-17A) in 42 games. Picard, who stands 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, has notched 14 points (4G-10A) in 42 games, although he has now gone 13 consecutive games without a point. Chris Campoli, 25, was acquired from the Islanders at the trade deadline. He is an emerging two-way defender who put up 13 points (5G-8A) in 25 games with the Senators at the end of last season. Campoli began the season hot offensively for the Senators but has tailed off in that regard in recent weeks and has 14 points (3G-11A) in 47 games.
 
GOALTENDING
Brian Elliott has taken over as the Senators No. 1 netminder with Pascal Leclaire having trouble staying healthy, and if his recent play is any indication, don’t expect him to give the top spot back anytime soon. Elliott enters Thursday’s contest as the NHL’s reigning No. 1 star of the week and is riding a six-game winning streak. The 24-year-old stopped 24 shots against the Devils on Tuesday to pick up his third shutout of the season.

 In 31 games Elliott has posted a record of 15-11-3 to go with his 2.57 goals-against average, .906 save percentage and three shutouts. Elliott was Ottawa’s go-to-guy down the stretch last season, winning 16 of his 27 decisions, with a 2.77 GAA and a .902 save percentage.

At last season’s trade deadline the Senators sent forward Antoine Vermette packing to Columbus in exchange Leclaire. Leclaire starred for the Blue Jackets in 2007-08, posting a career-low 2.25 goals-against-average, finishing second in the NHL with nine shutouts, and setting a then-Columbus record with 24 victories. The emergence of eventual Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason and a desire to use their depth in the crease to acquire much-needed goal scoring made Leclaire expendable to the Jackets.

Leclaire began the season as the go-to netminder for the Senators but injuries have since derailed his season. He missed 16 games with a broken cheekbone earlier this season and has now missed the past six games due to a concussion. Leclaire has made 26 appearances for the Senators, going 11-10-1 with a 3.07 goals-against average and a .890 save percentage.

Mike Brodeur, who spent most of his first five-plus seasons as a professional bouncing between the American Hockey League and the East Coast Hockey League, has made three starts while backing up Elliott and has won all three. He made 32 saves against the New York Rangers on Jan. 14 at Madison Square Garden to pick up his first NHL shutout.
 
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: JASON SPEZZA
Sometimes an injury can occur at the perfect time for a player. That appears to be the case with Senators center Jason Spezza, who has picked up goals in back-to-back contests after missing 20 games with a torn MCL. Spezza was originally scheduled to be sidelined through the Olympic break but he returned a couple weeks early.

Prior to his injury, Spezza was taking heat for the Senators’ so-so start with five goals and 19 points through his first 30 games. Despite his statistics falling off a bit over the last two seasons, Spezza still enters Thursday’s game averaging better than a point per game over his NHL career with 439 points (155G-284A) in 436 career games. One of the best stickhandlers in the NHL, Spezza has also proven himself to be a quality postseason performer with 39 points (13G-26A) in 40 games.
 
"THEY SAID IT"
“I knew the guys were playing well, I knew they'd gone through a tough stretch and had kind of got things together for a little bit, and I just wanted to make sure I came in and played well.”

– Center Jason Spezza talking about his return from a 20-game absence on Yahoo! Sports.

 
POINT OF INTEREST
28.0: Ottawa enters Thursday’s game allowing the fourth-fewest shots in the NHL at 28.0 per game.
  
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Author: Jason Seidling

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