Commentary

On second thought, we weren't too dismissive of the Senators

Updated: April 10, 2008, 11:46 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- As the hours ticked away before Pittsburgh and Ottawa began their first-round series, we wondered: Had we been too dismissive of the Senators?

Yes, they had horrific injuries and backed into the playoffs, but they are still the defending Eastern Conference champs. They still have elite players Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and two-time Cup winner Cory Stillman and a defense that was rock-solid a year ago.

Alfredsson to return?

  • Sources close to the Ottawa Senators told ESPN.com they wouldn't be surprised to see captain Daniel Alfredsson return to action as early as Game 3 or Game 4, when the series shifts back to Ottawa next Monday and Wednesday.

    Sens GM/coach Bryan Murray said he would be very surprised if Alfredsson makes an appearance in this first-round matchup. Still, Alfredsson was riding a stationary bike.

    "At this point, he's trying, but he's a ways away," Murray told reporters. "I don't think there's any question he's the leader. He was our best player, certainly in the playoffs last year and the majority of time this year. I think when you lose a player of stature in the room, it's a psychological thing as well as performance. So, we're going to miss him. But it's an opportunity for a couple guys to step up; we have a couple guys waiting for their opportunity.

    But if the Senators return home down 2-0 in the series, one imagines the team would think long and hard about rushing Alfredsson into the lineup.

    • Gary Roberts is playing the Senators for the fifth time in the past seven playoff years. He is 3-1 in those series, winning three times when he was a member of the Leafs. Roberts scored twice in Game 1, adding a power-play marker with 1:35 left.

    "He is a warrior. He is the type of guy that made a name for himself by being a warrior in the playoffs," Pittsburgh coach Michele Therrien said. "He only played one game before tonight in the last three months [because of a broken leg]. The way that he played tonight will be good for his confidence, too, because it is never easy."

    • NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was on hand for Game 1. After Murray's assertions that the Penguins had tanked Game 82 of the regular season to draw the Senators, Bettman said he warned all coaches and GMs that there is a line between gamesmanship and attacking the integrity of the game that cannot be crossed.

    "Everybody's on notice that there is a line that can be crossed that we won't tolerate," Bettman said. "You want to motivate your team? There are lots of ways to do it without demeaning the officials or the game or questioning integrity."

    • Interesting lineup decision for Therrien, who opted to sit veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor, a player with 151 postseason games under his belt and two Stanley Cup rings. Sydor was a healthy scratch in the final two regular-season games. Given the team's penalty-killing prowess (they've killed off 46 of the past 51 power plays in their past 12 games), it turned out to be a good call.

    • About 1,000 tickets for each of the Senators' first two home playoff dates next week remain unsold. Fans must have been reading the playoff previews.

    -- Scott Burnside

  • Had we buried them too early?

    Uh, no. As the Senators limped out of Game 1, having absorbed a 4-0 licking, it appears we buried them at just the right time.

    Less than two minutes into a game that might well have been the Senators' best chance to make this a series, to prove doubters wrong and prove to themselves they could compete despite their problems, Gary Roberts, 42 years old next month, nudged Ottawa defenseman Wade Redden off the puck and then ended up backhanding a loose puck past Martin Gerber for a 1-0 lead.

    Even after the Penguins went up 2-0 on a lovely Petr Sykora goal on a 2-on-1 with Evgeni Malkin, the Sens still had chances to seize control of this game.

    The oft-criticized Martin Gerber stood tall in the Ottawa net. He made a spectacular glove save on Marian Hossa to keep the Sens in the game, stopping all 15 shots he faced in the second period.

    Twice the Sens were given lengthy 5-on-3 power plays totaling 1:48, but they failed to generate anything that resembled sustained pressure. Although Cory Stillman hit the post on one drive, that was as close as the Senators came to beating Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped all 26 shots he faced.

    The Senators had seven power-play opportunities to just four for Pittsburgh, but came up empty. And frankly, empty pretty much describes this Ottawa team just one game into the best-of-seven series.

    "Five-on-3s have got to be automatic," Ottawa center Jason Spezza said. "They kill you if you don't score on them."

    Already without captain Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Kelly and Mike Fisher, the Senators lost rock-solid defenseman Anton Volchenkov when he was cut after being struck in the helmet by a Malkin slap shot midway through the second period; Volchenkov did not return and required a number of stitches to his head.

    "He's pretty sore," Senators GM/coach Bryan Murray said. "I think he'll be fine."

    Before the game, Murray had talked about the opportunity that the injuries to key personnel presented to other players. Presumably, he was talking about Heatley and Spezza, players who normally do not have to shoulder much in the way of leadership responsibilities. Yet, on a night that cried out for them to have a moment, to make an impact in a game they desperately needed to have and was eminently winnable, there was nothing. Heatley had just two shots on goal, while Spezza had four.

    The shutout was the third the suddenly punchless Senators have absorbed in their past five games.

    "The power-play situation could have been, should have been the key of the game, and we found a way to miss the net far too often, which has been going on for some time," Murray said.

    Hossa picked up a late power-play assist but couldn't beat Gerber despite leading all shooters with seven shots. Sidney Crosby also was held pointless. It was Malkin who was the best player on the ice, scoring an insurance marker with 6:02 left in the third period to give the Pens a 3-0 lead. It was Malkin's first career playoff goal and illustrated the stark change in his game from a year ago, when he looked lost during the Pens' five-game first-round series loss to Ottawa.

    Indeed, there was an eerie feeling of reverse déjà vu (if there is such a thing) as the game clock ticked down to zero. Last year, when the series opened in Ottawa and the Sens were significant favorites, it was the Senators schooling the young Pens 6-3, winning the battles on every front and setting the tone for a series that was over in about a week.

    On Wednesday night, it was the Pens who got the better goaltending and who put the game away late with two goals 4:27 apart in the second half of the third period. They physically pushed the Senators around, even if the physicality ended up giving the Senators power plays. Maxim Talbot, for instance, rushed to the defense of Fleury, who was jawing with Martin Lapointe, and Talbot threw Lapointe to the ice. Even Crosby got into it with Redden and Gerber with 3:25 left. That led to Ryan Whitney jumping to Crosby's defense and soundly thumping Redden in a fight that pretty much summed up the state of affairs for teams.

    And the problem for the Senators -- aside from the obvious ones of not scoring and losing key players -- is that the Penguins are simply going to get better.

    Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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