Ovechkin or Crosby and Malkin. Capitals or Penguins.
In the final evaluation, it doesn't really matter.
Ottawa Senators head coach/general manager Bryan Murray fully expects his injury-depleted team to be painted as the underdog when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin later this week. The Senators won't know their foe for sure until later this afternoon, but it can only be one of two teams at this point: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins or Alex Ovechkin and the upstart Washington Capitals.
If the Penguins beat the Flyers in Philadelphia later this afternoon, they'll pass the Montreal Canadiens to finish as the Eastern Conference's top seed. That would leave the Senators in sixth place and lined up against the No. 3 Capitals, who dumped the Florida Panthers 3-1 on Saturday night to win the Southeast Division crown.
A Pittsburgh loss, though, would leave them second and allow the Flyers to pass Ottawa, setting up a Sens-Pens first-round series for the second straight year. In 2007, the Senators prevailed in five games, jump starting their drive to the Stanley Cup final.
Either way, the Senators will line up without three key forwards — captain Daniel Alfredsson
, Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly — all unavailable because of injuries. None are expected back this round and Murray said Sunday that fact alone has him believing the "experts" will all predict a quick playoff dismissal for his team.
"It definitely will be the fact," he said of the impending post-season picks. "In this league, it’s such a fine line and when you have some injuries, it has to be factored in without a doubt. I can imagine that people might say 'The way Ottawa played down the stretch and the fact they’re missing these people, it’s pretty hard to expect that they’ll even compete.'
"All I can hope for here is that we don’t overplay the fact we’ve got injuries but overplay the fact that we’ve got opportunities for some people to step up and play and do something they weren’t able to do during the year, and that’s get more ice time and have a little more production."
While the underdog card can serve as motivation, Murray doesn't intend to overuse it. Instead, he'll merely ask the rest of the team to pull together to help fill the considerable void.
"The bottom line is, (the injuries) leave us short, no question," he said. "It’s just a fact of life we’re going to have to live with and deal with. I’m not going to say much, other than Dean McAmmond, you were a fourth-line player all year, now you’ve got to play on the second line. That’s all we can do. We’re going to ask the guys, just give us 100 per cent every night. That’s all I can really do as an underdog.
"I think any time you give a good person more opportunity, they will come with more emotion, they will come with a desire to prove that they can do it."
The Penguins bring a team into the post-season loaded with offensive firepower, including the addition of former Senators sniper Marian Hossa at the trade deadline. Washington, meanwhile, enters the playoffs as the East's hottest team, winning seven straight to roar past the Carolina Hurricanes to claim the Southeast crown. They were also 4-0 against the Senators this season.
Regardless of who they face, Murray calls it "one of the great challenges that we'll been able to face here in three years."
"They're both dangerous hockey teams," he said. "We know they both have the ability to score goals, so we’re going to have to really be good defensively, whoever we play. I don’t know that it matters who we play. It’s all about us now, hopefully playing at a real good level.
"Defensively, we’re going to have to be responsible and help our goaltender a great deal. In turn, it’s two teams that are regarded as more skilled than physical. I think that’s good for us. I think we match up better in that kind of scenario."
The playoffs, too, represent a fresh start for all concerned. It's a new season indeed.
"I think we do start somewhat from scratch here," said Murray. "It's not like one team had 120 points and the other had 80 and made it. The standings are pretty darn close. We ended up with 94 points and the team we’re going to play could end up with a maximum of 102 points.
"That tells me there’s a chance for anybody, not just the Ottawa Senators but any other team that gets in."