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Series Storylines: Penguins vs. Senators

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

Penguins vs. Flyers Round One Schedule:

Wednesday, April 11 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Friday, April 13 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Sunday, April 15 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 3:00 p.m. - NBC
Wednesday, April 18 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Friday, April 20 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Sunday, April 22 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - TBD - TBD
*Tuesday, April 24 - Tampa Bay at PITTSBURGH - TBD - TBD

#1 Pittsburgh Penguins
Overall: 36-12-0-72
VS #7 Ottawa Senators
Overall: 25-17-6-56
Home: 15-6-3-33

Team Injuries
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Ottawa Senators
Gm 1 Tues. May 14 - 7:30 PM NBCSN
Gm 2 Fri. May 17 - 7:30 PM NBCSN
Gm 3 Sun. May 19 - 7:30 PM NBCSN
Gm 4 Wed. May 22 - 7:30 PM NBCSN
Gm 5 *
Fri. May 24 - 7:30 PM
Gm 6 *
Sun. May 26 - TBD
Gm 7 *
Tues. May 28 - TBD
Games marked in BOLD indicate home games.
* If necessary
All times EDT
  C Jason Spezza, back surgery


The Penguins will play the Ottawa Senators in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. This is the fourth time in seven years these teams will meet in the postseason. Ottawa won the first of those matchups, 4-1, in 2007. The Penguins won the last two series, sweeping the Senators in 2008 and recording a 4-2 series victory in 2010. The Penguins have won the last five playoff games between the teams in Ottawa – including the series-clinching win in Game 6 of the 2010 meeting – and swept the regular season series with the Senators, winning all three games. Here are the main storylines to follow as the series progresses.

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The Penguins and the Senators are dealing with very different situations between the pipes entering the second round.

Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson would probably have run away with the Vezina Trophy if he had not missed 18 games with an ankle sprain suffered in February, as he led all NHL netminders in both goals-against average (1.69) and save percentage (.941). But he returned to game action on April 7 and continued his excellent play between the pipes for the Senators, meaning the Penguins will be facing a red-hot goalie in this round.

Coach Paul MacLean called Anderson the MVP of their opening-round series against Montreal, saying he was “outstanding in every game.” Anderson allowed just nine goals on 180 shots in those five games for a .950 save percentage. Anderson is just that kind of goaltender that gives his team confidence and keeps them in games with his play. The Senators were badly outplayed for stretches against the Canadiens, but Anderson’s dominance kept them from gaining any momentum. As teammate Marc Methot has said, “you just know with ‘Andy’ back there you have a chance to win the game.”

However, Anderson has struggled against the Penguins during the regular season for whatever reason, so we’ll see if that carries over into the playoffs. He went 0-2-1 in three games this year, allowing eight regulation goals against in those games. In the shootout loss to Pittsburgh, all three Penguins shooters (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal) beat him to get the win. He will have his work cut out for him against the high-scoring and talented Penguins, who may be the team that can make him look less like Superman.

Meanwhile, the Penguins coaching staff has an intriguing decision to make. Marc-Andre Fleury started the first four games of Pittsburgh’s opening-round series against the Islanders, but was replaced by Tomas Vokoun for Game 5 with the series tied 2-2 in a wakeup call for the team. Vokoun, who became the first starting goaltender for the Penguins not named Fleury since Johan Hedberg in 2001, performed exactly how the Penguins needed him to in his first playoff start in six years. He brought a calm, steady presence to the crease and pitched a 31-save shutout in that game. He then got the nod for Game 6 and was the MVP of the overtime win, making outstanding saves on odd-man rushes late in the game and helping the Penguins clinch the series on the road.

Vokoun stopped 66 of 69 shots in the back-to-back wins and has proven that he is extremely capable of handling goaltending duties in the pressure cooker that is the playoffs. But Fleury is the franchise goalie, having started 79 straight playoff games for the Penguins – backstopping them to the Stanley Cup championship in 2009 – before Vokoun took over. Fleury has been fantastic for them throughout the years, and the fluky first-round goals and losses cannot be blamed solely on him. His teammates share a portion of the blame and their play helped put Fleury on the bench.

So do the Penguins go with the hot goalie in Vokoun to start the second round? Or do they start Fleury, who has been part of the heart and soul of this team for nine seasons?

In the second meeting of the regular season between the teams, a freak accident happened on the ice that left the Senators without their star player – and left them fuming and upset.

Ottawa defenseman and reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson suffered a lacerated Achilles tendon in a collision with Penguins winger Matt Cooke as the two raced for a puck in the corner. Karlsson, who had six goals and 10 points in 14 games played, underwent surgery the next day. It was thought Karlsson would need six months to recover and would miss the rest of the season, but he resumed practicing just over nine weeks later – just three days before the Penguins were scheduled to play in Ottawa, the first game between the teams since the incident occurred and the final meeting of the season between the teams.

Though Karlsson didn’t play against the Penguins on April 22, his teammates were out for revenge against Cooke. Though what happened was an accident, many Senators players, their coach and even their owner have said publicly they don’t believe it was, hinting that Cooke purposefully injured Karlsson.

Because of that, questions surrounded the Senators’ focus heading into that April 22 matchup and if they would have a desire for retribution even with the meaning of the game (Ottawa was still battling to make the playoffs). It appeared that they did, with noted antagonizer Chris Neil following Cooke around the ice trying to get him to fight and guys taking extra liberties with the Penguins winger – while boos rained down on him the whole night. But Cooke expected that and did his best to continue to play hockey, keeping his focus on the game and even collecting a beautiful assist on a Tyler Kennedy goal in a Penguins’ win.

The Penguins returned to Pittsburgh with a 3-1 win over the Senators, and Karlsson returned the next game – playing 27:11 minutes and recording two assists in an overtime win over Washington. He appeared in the remaining three contests of the regular season and looked as fast and strong as ever.

With all of that being said, there is certainly going to be a physical aspect to this series, with Cooke and Neil likely leading the way in that department as both players led their teams in hits (Neil had 29 in five games; Cooke had 25 in six). But I don’t think it will be because the Senators still want retribution. They just want to beat the Penguins.

The defending Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson is a total game-changing talent at just 22 years old. The Penguins got a glimpse of the player he would become three years ago in their last playoff series, where the then-rookie scored six points (1G-5A) in his postseason debut. He is such a confident player because of his elite talent. He is an effortless skater with exceptional hockey sense and the ability to do whatever he wants with the puck when it is on his stick. Having a player like that on their blue line is so valuable.

In addition to Karlsson, the Senators also have Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar, who was one of the vital pieces to the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup championship team, will make his return to Pittsburgh in the playoffs for the first time since joining the Senators before the 2010-11 season. Gonchar spent five seasons with the Penguins from 2005-10. Gonchar is close friends with Evgeni Malkin and was a fan favorite while in Pittsburgh, but he could be a catalyst to a potential Ottawa upset.

It hasn’t been all blue skies and sunshine for Gonchar during his time in Ottawa, but he silenced many critics with a big season this year. With Karlsson out for all but seven games, Gonchar stepped up and finished as one of the Senators’ scoring leaders while still being responsible defensively.

While Ottawa may have Karlsson and Gonchar, the Penguins have Kris Letang on their blue line. Letang tied for the scoring lead among team defensemen in the first round with six points (2G-4A), the same total output as Karlsson. Letang did skate more minutes than Karlsson, averaging 27:46 per game. Letang may be the one dethrone Karlsson as the league’s best defenseman, as he was named one of three finalists for this year’s Norris field. And watching the two of them go head-to-head in this series will be a thrill to watch, indeed. (They’re similar in so many ways, but we WILL give the edge in hair to Letang).

Erik Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar are puck-moving, offensive defensemen who are key components of the power play. But the remaining four defensemen in Ottawa’s rotation are big and physical.

Take a look at their measurements…
Jared Cowen: 6-foot-5, 230 pounds
Eric Gryba: 6-foot-4, 222 pounds
Marc Methot: 6-foot-3, 231 pounds
Chris Phillips: 6-foot-3, 221 pounds

… Yeah, that’s a big back end right there. Those defensemen played a vital role in wearing down the speedy Montreal forwards with punishing physicality, playing them hard and tough, making them pay the price and leaving them battered and bruised. They will be looking to do the same against the Penguins and their wealth of skilled players. It’s something that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin especially dealt with in the first round against the Islanders, so they know what that’s like. They still found ways to make plays despite having to fight for every inch, so we’ll see if they can do the same against the Senators.

The Senators also have a line up front in Chris Neil, Zack Smith and Matt Kassian that forechecked the Canadiens ruthlessly and provided energy on the ice. They combined for 52 hits in the series, with Neil producing 56 percent of those (he had 29). 

Pittsburgh’s offense ranked first in the regular season with an average of 3.38 goals per game. And right now, it ranks first in the postseason by averaging 4.17 goals in six total games.

Pittsburgh can seemingly score at will. Six Penguins equaled or surpassed the six-point total of Ottawa’s leading scorers Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson. Evgeni Malkin led the Penguins with 11 points in the first round, while Sidney Crosby (3G-6A) and Jarome Iginla (2G-7A) tied for second with nine points each. Pascal Dupuis led with five goals and had a total of seven points while defensemen Paul Martin and Kris Letang had six points apiece.

But while producing points has never appeared to be an issue for this Penguins team no matter the opponent, they should still expect a big challenge in trying to identify and exploit any weaknesses in Ottawa’s defense – which ranked second in the regular season and allowed just nine goals in five games in the first round.

Goalie Craig Anderson is absolutely the primary reason for their domination on D. He is the kind of goalie who is capable of keeping his team in games even when they are outplayed and has been doing that for them all season. Having a Norris Trophy winner in Erik Karlsson doesn’t hurt, either. The Senators have the consummate complement of puck-moving, mobile defensemen and big, physical blueliners.

The Senators are still missing one key player as No. 1 center Jason Spezza remains out after undergoing back surgery in February. Though the longtime Senator Spezza is a big part of their team, they have been OK without him. Because even though their production ranked among the league’s lowest in the regular season – 27th out of 30 teams, to be exact – their depth allowed them to more than double their regular-season goal-scoring average, exploding for 20 goals in five games against Montreal in a total group effort aided by contributions from defensemen Erik Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar. Ottawa is ranked second in postseason scoring behind Pittsburgh.

Captain Daniel Alfredsson may be 40 years old, but he still tied Karlsson for the team lead in points with six and had two goals and five points in the last three games of the series. Linemate and regular-season goals and points leader Kyle Turris scored in each of the last three games of the series, including the OT winner in Game 4. Turris, the third-overall pick in the 2007 NHL Draft, has soft hands, scoring instincts and skating ability and he led all forwards in ice time during the first round. His three goals tied for the team lead with the final member of his and Alfredsson’s line, rookie Cory Conacher (as well as another first-year player in Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who had a hat trick in Game 5).

Ottawa’s goal output in the first round against a team committed to defense like the Canadiens was certainly impressive; as was the way it was achieved through committee. But it’s highly doubtful that the Senators can outscore the Penguins in a game, as Pittsburgh also scores by committee – they just score a lot more and they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the way. Twenty of 23 Penguins that appeared in the first round registered at least a point, with six players equaling or surpassing the six-point total of Ottawa’s leading scorers Alfredsson and Karlsson.

The Penguins had trouble with the Islanders’ fast young forwards and their overall team speed in their opening-round series. Granted, the Senators are somewhat older and slower up top in some respects. Though captain Daniel Alfredsson is tied for the team scoring lead, he is 40 years old and his game has slowed from what used to be. Scoring winger Milan Michalek is 28 years old while veteran center Jason Spezza is 29. But with all of the injuries the Senators have dealt with throughout the season, their young players in the system got the opportunity to step up and contribute. They’re continuing to do that now in the playoffs.

Veteran Michalek has been on a line with rookies Jakob Silfverberg (age 22) and Mika Zibanejad (age 20), who have developed into valuable contributors on this Senators team. They’re both talented players with acute offensive instincts. Rookie Cory Conacher (age 23) has starred for the Senators since being acquired from Tampa Bay via trade at the deadline. He had nine goals and 24 points in 35 total regular-season games, scored three in four appearances in the first round and though he’s rather small, his quickness could pose a problem for the Penguins.

Finally, the Senators called up rookie Jean-Gabriel Pageau (age 20) from their American Hockey League affiliate for the first time in his pro career on April 10, where he scored twice in nine regular-season games before making his playoff debut in Game 1. He was pointless in that game and the following, but exploded for a hat trick in Game 3 in a 6-1 win over Montreal. With the trick, he became just the second Senator to record a hat trick in the postseason – the other being Alfredsson.

Jason Spezza, who has been absent from the lineup since undergoing back surgery on Feb. 1, has been progressing in his rehab. He had been skating with Ottawa’s taxi squad and returned to full team practice on Sunday.

Though coach Paul MacLean said on Saturday that Spezza’s return to game action is still “a long way away,” returning to practice is a big step in the recovery process. And while there is no official projected date for his return, he said he plans to keep participating in practice moving forward to work on getting his strength and speed back. He told the team’s website, "The whole reason to get on the ice with the team was they're going to have some hard practices in the next couple of days and it'll give me a bit of a gauge to see where I am personally and see how things will go."

While Spezza and the Senators have been careful not to put a timeline on anything, the newest development in his situation certainly sparks optimism that he will make an appearance in this second-round series against the Penguins. Time will tell, but it may be wise not to bet against it.

Pittsburgh’s special teams may be the reason they won the series against New York. Not only did the Penguins power play convert seven of 21 chances against the Islanders  – operating at a staggering 33.3 percent success rate – but their penalty kill excelled.

There was concern going into the series about how the Penguins would fare while shorthanded, as they had finished in the bottom 10 of the league during the regular season on the penalty kill. But Pittsburgh allowed just two goals on 20 chances against for a 90 percent success rate, ranking second in the playoffs going into the second round. The Penguins rotate a lot of players while shorthanded, which helps keep legs fresh and quick.

Erik Karlsson will be the player to watch when Ottawa is awarded a man-advantage in this round – partly because he virtually does not leave the ice. He is the quarterback of their power play and is arguably the best one in the league. Not only can he move and dangle the puck like no one else, but he also has a big shot that he doesn’t hesitate to line up from the point. Karlsson is averaging over six minutes on the power play, while Sergei Gonchar is averaging over five. The Penguins are well aware of his ability to make plays.

The slippery Turris is also a fixture on the top unit, along with veterans Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson. Michalek possesses a sick shot that allows him to snipe gorgeous goals, and he is also a big body that can muscle around the offensive zone. Alfredsson also has a quick trigger and can contribute in any way on the man-advantage.

The Senators did very well on the penalty kill as well. The saying common around locker rooms is that your goaltender has to be your best penalty killer, and Craig Anderson was for Ottawa. He stopped 40-of-43 shorthanded shots, allowing just three goals on 19 chances (84.2 percent). Ottawa had the No. 1 penalty kill in the regular season (88 percent).
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