First-round breakdown: Pens-Sens
There must be something about that fourth seed the Pittsburgh Penguins find comforting. For the second straight postseason, the Penguins will enter the playoffs in that spot, and so far so good.
Last year, they won the Cup after a dramatic Game 7 in Detroit. This year, the Penguins seemed to amble quite a bit during the regular season and there has been a definite sense of not quite being engaged.
"We know we've been a little inconsistent with it, so that's really our challenge," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said on the eve of the playoffs. "Are we happy with our mindset? No, not entirely. Do we know how we need to play? Yes. We have not gotten to the consistency we know we're going to need."
After winning their first four post-Olympic games, the Penguins didn't win more than two in a row after that and failed to win the Atlantic Division.
The Senators, meanwhile, established themselves as one of the streakiest teams in the NHL. They did manage to string together a franchise-best 11-game winning streak before the Olympic break and another six-game run late in the season. Ottawa is also 21-2-2 when leading after the first period and 4-20-2 when trailing after one.
There appears to be no middle ground for the Senators, and the outcome of this series will depend on whether "Good Ottawa" or "Bad Ottawa" shows up.
1. The golden child: All discussions about the Penguins begin and end with their captain, Sidney Crosby, he of the golden goal in the Olympics and the engine that drives the Pittsburgh machine. Crosby has continued to enhance the offensive part of his game, collecting two goals on the final day of the regular season to tie Steven Stamkos for the Rocket Richard Trophy with 51 goals, marking the first time he's hit the 50-goal plateau.
Look for Crosby to help elevate the Pens' team game, a game that has been pretty iffy of late, through his own level of play. The challenge for the Senators will be in trying to limit the damage Crosby inflicts on them. Look for Anton Volchenkov, who has blocked more shots over the past five years than any NHL player, and Chris Phillips to draw the assignment of trying to keep Crosby off the puck and stop him from scoring the in-tight goals that have now become part of his repertoire. Good luck.
2. Wither Geno? One of the main reasons there is a compelling case to be made for Crosby to win the Hart Trophy is his sidekick and defending NHL scoring champ Evgeni Malkin has had an off season. Hampered by injuries and illness, Malkin has played in only 66 games and collected 73 points. When he has played, especially later in the season, he's been pretty good.
It goes without saying that a healthy Malkin makes the Penguins that much more formidable. He also makes them harder to defend five-on-five because the Sens will have to choose how to stop two dynamic centers. It also makes the Penguins' 19th-ranked power play exponentially more dangerous working the puck from the half wall. If, however, Malkin's wonky foot, etc., keep him from being at peak efficiency, it gives the Sens a fighting chance.
3. M.A.S.H., déjà vu: When these two teams met in the playoffs two seasons ago (this is the third time in four playoff years the two teams will meet), the Senators had a number of injuries to top players, including captain Daniel Alfredsson. Fast-forward to this spring and it's déjà vu. The Sens will be without top-four defenseman Filip Kuba, who is out for at least three more weeks after undergoing back surgery. His absence will put more pressure on Andy Sutton, Chris Phillips, Volchenkov and promising rookie defender Erik Karlsson.
The Senators will also be without enigmatic forward Alexei Kovalev, who suffered a torn MCL last week and is done for the season. The Senators will also be watching the play of Milan Michalek, who anchors the team's second line and returned to the lineup for the final two regular-season games after missing the previous nine contests with a knee injury.
4. Step-up guy? We all know Alfredsson is going to bring it every night. It's just who he is. But if the Senators are going to have a chance in this series, they need center Jason Spezza to take a giant step forward in terms of his leadership and postseason production. Folks forget he led the NHL in assists (15) and points (22) when the Senators marched to the Stanley Cup finals in 2007, but Spezza had a miserable series against Anaheim. He started the season scoring twice in his first 25 games, but hit his stride in the second half to finish the season with 23 goals and 57 points in 60 games. He will likely start the playoffs lining up with Alfredsson and youngster Peter Regin. It's statement time for Spezza.
5. The boys behind the bench: Bylsma and Ottawa coach Cory Clouston represent the new trend in NHL coaching hires, taking cerebral bench bosses who cut their teeth in the minors and giving them a shot in the bigs. Bylsma proved to be a sort of anti-Michel Therrien when he took over in February 2009 and showed terrific coaching acumen throughout the playoffs, juggling his line combinations to great effect.
This season, he acknowledged his team has not been where it needs to be, and the challenge for him is to find that proverbial switch this week. He said he's talked to people connected to other NHL dynasties, as well as teams in other sports trying to repeat as champions.
"We know what it means to go through that in the playoffs, but that level has to happen for your team and for your players and your team game, for individuals," Bylsma said. "So that urgency level is going to come. The question is, are we going to be a team that can draw upon our past, get to that level, and have success going forward in the playoffs."
As for Clouston, he has proved himself to be a coach who can get a lot out of little and he will now have to replicate that against the defending Stanley Cup champs.
• The Penguins' big three versus the Senators' blue-line corps and rookie netminder Brian Elliott: No team, other than Detroit in the 2008 Cup finals, has had an answer for Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal in the playoffs. The ability to move them off the puck and take away time and space in the defensive zone is crucial to the Senators' chances and the Penguins' ability to replicate their success. With both teams icing evenly matched power-play and penalty-killing units, five-on-five play will be crucial.
• Ottawa: Spezza has had 14 points in his past eight games, including five multipoint games. Michalek, the pivotal part of a deal that sent Dany Heatley to San Jose before the season, has just one goal in his past nine games.
• Pittsburgh: One of two additions to the Penguins' roster at the trade deadline, Jordan Leopold has seven points in his past nine games, including four goals, one of which was the overtime winner Sunday against the New York Islanders. The other newcomer, Alexei Ponikarovsky, is pointless in his past four games and was suspended for the Penguins' final two regular-season games for a boarding hit on the Islanders' Josh Bailey.
• If there is one team we believe can simply turn on a playoff switch, it's the Penguins. The team's experience and strength down the middle will be too much for the inconsistent Senators and Elliott to handle. Penguins in six games.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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