Commentary

Cup finalists Ottawa, Anaheim face big struggles in first round

Updated: April 14, 2008, 5:45 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

OTTAWA -- So, here we are, less than a week into the opening round of the playoffs, and last season's finalists are halfway down the playoff toilet, a combined 0-4 and outscored by a cumulative 18-5.

The Ottawa Senators and Anaheim Ducks are just 2-for-18 on the power play, have given up a combined 10 power-play goals in 26 attempts and have yet to take a lead in either of their respective series.

[+] EnlargeMartin Gerber
Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty ImagesGoalie Martin Gerber has been in net for both of Ottawa's losses versus Pittsburgh.

There are other parallels, even though the Ducks opened at home against the Dallas Stars and the Senators on the road to face the Pittsburgh Penguins to start the opening round. The Ducks were behind 2-0 in Saturday's Game 2, rallied to tie, but gave up three unanswered third-period goals to lose 5-2. The Sens, in their own Game 2 must-win situation, fought back from a 3-0 deficit, but gave up a late power-play goal and an empty-netter to lose 5-3.

The other parallel? Both teams are pretty much cooked.

We often hear players, coaches, GMs, analysts and guys at the hot dog stand reverentially referencing "knowing what it takes" to win in the postseason. As though that coveted information might come in a dream to players or it is some kind of ancient recipe written in strange symbols on a rock the coach or team mascot finds in his backyard. Follow this recipe and you're golden.

Let's assume there is something to this. That by having had success in the past, as the Ducks and Senators did a year ago when they rolled to a 24-7 postseason record before Anaheim defeated Ottawa in five games to win the Cup, the teams would be able to draw on that experience to move forward this spring.

But what about this? What happens when these fine players are confronted by an even greater, more powerful knowledge -- that they no longer have what it takes? That realization might become clearer because you know the opposite.

It's like having the recipe for a magic cake. That would be a good thing to have. But when you look in your pantry and you realize you have no flour, eggs or milk, you instinctively know you have no chance of making anything.

"I think everybody learns from the guy that won," Ottawa coach Bryan Murray said when asked Sunday about the Senators and Ducks' collective plight. "I think what Dallas has done is really neutralize Anaheim's defense. I think they've really pressured them consistently and made them pay for almost every penalty.

"It is a grind. They've got Corey Perry out and he's a big part of what they do. Injuries, mentally and physically, catch up to you if you play a lot of games year after year. Teams have done it in the past, but I don't know that many teams have the depth to carry on when they have guys that are tired or hurt or whatever it may be."

[+] EnlargeDucks
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesThe defending Cup-champion Ducks are down 2-0 against the Stars.

This is not to say the Ducks and Senators have no chance to win their series, or even to make what have been lopsided series thus far more competitive; but it will take a concerted effort to find another recipe. And that's a difficult chore at this stage, given how well the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dallas Stars seem to have put their own playoff demons behind them.

The Senators seemed to find something midway through Game 2 in Pittsburgh, where they started to send more players to the net, resulting in their first goals of the series. That's a different recipe than the Senators are used to employing when Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly are in the lineup. They weren't in the lineup, though, and are not expected to be for Game 3 on Monday night. (Alfredsson might suit up.) Worse, Jason Spezza did not skate Sunday in Ottawa and whether he'll be available Monday is unknown thanks to a leg injury suffered in Game 2.

"We're not feeling sorry for ourselves at all," added Ottawa tough guy Chris Neil, who had a strong outing in Game 2. "It's about who steps up to do the job."

The Ducks are also undermanned, still without Perry, not to mention Andy McDonald and Dustin Penner, both important offensive contributors last season who left the team via trade and offer sheet, respectively.

Knowing what it takes, the teams' challenge is to somehow push down what must be a powerful belief, perhaps subconscious but powerful nonetheless, that they no longer have what it takes.

In the past four seasons, the two Cup finalists have all managed to either miss the playoffs entirely or fail to advance beyond the first round. Maybe, in the end, the reality is "knowing what it takes" is the kind of ethereal knowledge that can only be possessed at the time it's happening, a recipe with a very limited shelf life.

If that's true, the two conference champions from last season are not long for this playoff world.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.