Sens post strong win, but next round will be challenge
OTTAWA -- There will undoubtedly be bigger tests ahead, and until they master those tests, the past will be the Ottawa Senators' constant companion.
But on Thursday night, the Senators completed their first trial of this young playoff year with an emphatic, series-ending 3-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The win was their third straight and proved to be a microcosm of the entire five-game series. As they did throughout, the Senators revealed to be patient, hard-working and quick to exploit their opponents' flaws.
"There's nothing to be ashamed of. They're a good team," Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien said after the game. "They played really well and they played better than us because they're more experienced than us. We got beat by a great hockey team. They've got a chance to win the Stanley Cup."
Throughout this series, putting the past in the past has been one of the themes given the Senators' past is littered with unfulfilled playoff expectations. Playing in their 10th straight playoff tournament, the team has never advanced to a Stanley Cup finals and only once advanced as far as the Eastern Conference finals.
But after Thursday's dominating win, GM John Muckler said he thinks this squad is different.
"We seem to be on the right track," said Muckler, citing the team's leadership, goaltending and physicality. "This hockey club seems to have something special going."
In Thursday's tilt, the Senators escaped early penalty trouble, successfully killing off a pair of 5-on-3 situations early in the first period. They then scored three times in the second to choke the life out of a youthful Penguins team that was clearly nervous with many in the lineup facing their first playoff elimination game.
"They really did play great. They played tight and they made it hard on us. They had extra guys on the puck," Pittsburgh forward Colby Armstrong said.
Once again, the Senators managed to dictate the flow and pace of the game for large stretches of time. When Dany Heatley opened the scoring 1:08 into the second period on the power play, the Senators surged, knocked the Penguins off the puck and forced Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury into difficult save after difficult save. Eleven different Senators scored goals in this series, including three different players Thursday (Heatley, Antoine Vermette and Chris Kelly). By comparison, only five different Penguins managed to find the net.
At every turn, the Senators were either just a little better than the Penguins, or a whole lot better. Apart from a third-period stutter in Game 2 that allowed the Penguins to even the series at 1, the Senators were the better team in every period. The Penguins held leads only late in Game 2 and early in Game 3.
When the Penguins did mount an attack, Ottawa netminder Ray Emery was always as good as he needed to be. He didn't steal a game, but he wasn't required to. Early in Thursday's game, when the Senators didn't record their first shot until past the mid-point of the first period, Emery was the difference.
"I thought I felt more confident as the series went on," Emery said. "The start of the game [Thursday], it was definitely good to get some shots and get a feel for things."
Last season, Emery was thrust into the starter's role when Dominik Hasek was injured at the Olympics. The rookie played well for the most part as the Senators lost in the second round to Buffalo.
"Last year, there were some games in Tampa where we got three or four goals right away, and then gave up a lot of chances and kind of won games that way. This series, when we got a lead, it was pretty solid," Emery said. "I thought the whole team just bought into the game plan. Guys sacrificed offense, guys chipped pucks in, did little things that really frustrate the other team. That makes the difference."
In many ways, the Penguins were a good first-round matchup for the Senators, who hope to bury their playoff demons once and for all.
The Penguins were the third-highest scoring team during the regular season and the Senators held them to 10 goals in the five games. Regular-season scoring leader Sidney Crosby had three goals and two assists and was limited in large part by the play of defensive pair Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips.
"We took away his drive as much as we could because [Crosby] drives the net and moves the puck better than anybody in the league," Ottawa coach Bryan Murray said. "But I thought our 'D' did a really good job there. Those two guys [Phillips and Volchenkov] deserve a big pat on the back.''
"I think they executed better. Especially the last two games," Crosby said. "We had our opportunities, especially early on in this game. We had a couple of power plays that really could have put them in a hole. Last game, it was a 1-1 game and we had a couple of power plays and we don't put them away. I think we gave them a chance to hang around the last couple of games. We score a couple of big goals and it's 3-2 [in the series] for us. It's just a matter of not executing when we had those key moments during games."
It's entirely likely the Senators will play either New Jersey or the New York Rangers in the second round. Either will present a significantly bigger challenge. But that's how the playoffs are supposed to work.
If the Senators can maintain their poise and work ethic, perhaps the past will no longer be at their heels.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.