|THE SKINNY |
This time, the skate rests squarely on the other foot.
Last spring, the Ottawa Senators were the big, bad bully welcoming the new kids on the block, the Pittsburgh Penguins, to the postseason party. Five mostly one-sided games later, the Sens were one step closer to an eventual Eastern Conference title and the Pens were left wondering what went wrong.
The same two teams meet this spring in the Eastern Conference quarter-finals, only this time it is the group from Ottawa that enters as the underdog, questioning its very right to be in the postseason. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, struts into the tournament as the Atlantic Division champion and a favourite to advance out of the East.
|Pittsburgh went 1-2-1 against Ottawa this season, but the Penguins are 11-4-1 since their last game against the Senators, who went 6-8-2 down the stretch. |
What a difference a year can make, eh? Actually, it is just a few months.
As the New Year approached, Ottawa virtually was unbeatable and set comfortably atop the conference standings. Today, the train has come off the rails, with coach John Paddock paying with his job, and the Sens have free-fallen to seventh place. Since, Feb 2, Ottawa is just 11-15-4.
"Mentally, with the injury, it was good and bad. I had two months (off). It was awful. But at the same time I think I'm as hungry as I could be." - Sidney Crosby, discussing his high ankle sprain Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is 19-8-4 during that same stretch, catching fire despite the fact that Sidney Crosby and No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury were out for extended periods with ankle injuries.
Other players stepped up for coach Michel Therrien and guided the Penguins through the make-or-break portion of the schedule. Ty Conklin performed like a franchise goalie in Fleury’s absence and Evgeni Malkin stepped out from Crosby’s shadow to make a case for the League’s MVP award by scoring 106 points.
With as many struggles as the Senators have faced, they still are a dangerous team, a team that represented the East in last year’s Stanley Cup final.
This time around, though, it will be Martin Gerber in the crease, not Ray Emery, who has fallen far out of favour. Gerber has had an up-and-down season, explaining some of the team’s struggles.
"It's a fresh start for every team. All eight teams on each side. There's only going to be 16 teams left with a shot and you want to make sure you're part of that group.” - Chris Neil, dismissing Ottawa’s late-season woes. Ottawa still has the top trio of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson – although Alfredsson will start this series on the injury shelf. There is no definitive timetable for his return.
Regardless, the Sens better find some answers quick or they could be the ones shaking their heads this time around, a result the Penguins would love to deliver.
Pittsburgh will win if -- It takes advantage of home ice. Not only will Mellon Arena be rocking for this series, but the fact that Pittsburgh is the home team for four games provides tactical advantages the Pens must exploit. One of the biggest will be getting away from Ottawa’s great checking line and getting favourable matchups though the power of last change.
Ottawa will win if -- It finds a way to travel back in time. These Sens are not much different, personnel-wise, than the team that opened the season as an unbeatable force. Heck, they aren’t even all that different than the team that ran roughshod through the Eastern Conference playoff field last spring. Ottawa just has to find a way to recapture that confidence and it will be ready to give the Penguins all they can handle.