A year ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins already had stashed their hockey sticks for golf clubs by now.
How much difference 365 days can make.
The Penguins avenged their 2007 first-round playoff loss to the Ottawa Senators by sweeping the defending Eastern Conference champions in four games this time around, paving the way for a deeper journey into the postseason.
"It feels great," Sidney Crosby
said after the Game 4 clincher. "Obviously it was a different situation last year and we definitely went through some learning experiences there, but we responded well here in the first round.
"They handled us pretty well last year. They were physical and they were hard on us and to be able to come back this year and learn from our mistakes and be better for it and get a win here feels good for sure."
While the Penguins are regarded for their high-flying offense, it was their defense that earned them the series victory against Ottawa. The Penguins limited the Senators to just five goals in four games, and the Senators’ top guns, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley, were held to a combined two assists and a minus-9 rating.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
-- so often lost in the shadows of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin
, Marian Hossa and Sergei Gonchar -- emerged as a bona fide playoff star. Fleury posted a 1.26 goals-against average, .955 save percentage and one shutout in earning his first postseason series victory.
The Penguins announced their presence early in the series as Gary Roberts, returning from a broken leg suffered before Christmas, scored his first goal since Dec. 23 just 68 seconds into Game 1. He added the game’s final goal with 1:35 left in the contest, capping a 4-0 victory. The two goals were one fewer than Roberts scored during the regular season.
Aside from Roberts, the story was Fleury. The netminder had suffered his own injury woes during the season, and some thought Ty Conklin, who played so well when Fleury missed three months with a high ankle sprain, would better serve the Pens in net. But Fleury went 11-2-1 in his last 14 regular-season starts, and his strong Game 1 play quieted all doubters.
"For the last 15 games, he has been the best goalie in the National Hockey League, so I am not surprised," coach Michel Therrien said after 26-save effort in Game 1.
Game 2 marked the first sign of adversity, as the Pens jumped to a 3-0 lead, only to see Ottawa tie the game in the third period. A back-and-forth affair turned in Pittsburgh’s favor when the Senators’ Martin Lapointe was called for high-sticking Jarkko Ruutu with 1:14 left in regulation.
The Penguins’ power-play machine took over, and Ryan Malone scored Pittsburgh’s third power-play goal of the game 12 seconds later. Malone added an empty-net goal with seven seconds left to close the 5-3 victory.
"We were playing great hockey,” said Crosby, who had four assists in Game 2. "When it was 3-3, we weren't happy, but we had to keep playing the way we were, and we got rewarded. We knew if we kept playing like that, we'd be fine."
They remained fine when the series shifted to Ottawa.
Pittsburgh was greeted with a newly-hung photo mural of last season’s series-closing handshake mounted in the hallway between the two dressing rooms at Scotiabank Place, adding more fuel to the Penguins’ fire.
The Senators, invigorated by the return of captain Daniel Alfredsson, scored the game’s first goal just 1:11 into the second period of Game 3, but Maxime Talbot tied the game, and Crosby netted the game-winner 12 seconds into the third period. Jordan Staal and Hossa also scored in the third, and Fleury turned away 33 shots to set the stage for a sweep.
The feeling was especially nice for Hossa, who started his career in Ottawa and was hoping to forget his own 2007 playoff disappointment -- one assist, minus-6 rating in four games with Atlanta -- in the past.
"It was nice to finally get that first goal and have a good game, especially in this building, where I basically started my career," Hossa said. "But the most important thing is we're up 3-0. That's what counts."
Two days later, Pittsburgh closed the series with a 3-1 victory.
Malkin scored a power-play goal early in the second, and after Ottawa’s Cory Stillman tied the game, Ruutu scored the winner on a spectacular breakaway. Tyler Kennedy sprung Ruutu at center ice, and with Ottawa’s Brian Lee in pursuit, Ruutu broke in on goal, stopped just short of the net, spun around 180 degrees and flipped a backhand past goalie Martin Gerber.
"It was half a breakaway – the D was right on me," Ruutu said. "I tried to cut in front of him and I was on my backhand, so I lost the puck a little bit, and then I decided to turn around and throw it at the net."
Crosby scored his second goal of the series into an empty net in the waning seconds, and then Pittsburgh had its own handshake photo to hang up.
"Most of us, our first playoff memory was losing here, so that's changed now," Crosby said.
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Staff Writer