Well, this looks familiar. For the third time in four seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators will face off in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The teams split the first two series, with Ottawa winning a five game series in 2007 en route to losing in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Anaheim Ducks. In 2008, Pittsburgh returned the favor by sweeping the Sens before losing to the Detroit Red Wings in the Final. No, that doesn’t make this the Eastern Conference Final, but a trend is a trend.
The teams come into this first round having split the season series 2-2. Powerful offenses were on full display in these games, highlighted by wins of 6-2 by Ottawa and 8-2 by Pittsburgh. The key for both teams will be to find a way to stop the other's potent offensive attack, something neither team did consistently in their first four meetings.
The question of defense looms especially large in Pittsburgh. The Pens entered the season with what should have been a solid defensive corps, but it has severely underachieved through the season. Sergei Gonchar has begun to show his age, and young guns Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski have looked shaky at times. They will look to their one rock, Brooks Orpik, to shut down big Ottawa forwards Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza. On the other side, Ottawa’s normally balanced offensive attack will rely more on these two with the loss of veteran Alexei Kovalev to a knee injury.
When the calendar turns to April, all eyes in the hockey world turn to the goaltenders. Ottawa’s Brian Elliott will enter the second season with zero career postseason games. This could become an important factor, especially when facing a seasoned Penguins lineup. Elliott will be up against Marc-Andre Fleury, unquestionably the best big game goalie of the last two seasons. After a solid but not spectacular year, Fleury will be looking to regain his playoff form and lead his team again to the Cup.
All things considered, Pittsburgh’s strength up the middle with centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal will prove too much for Ottawa to handle over a long series. The Pens’ late season inconsistency will show, exposing the defensive problems, making them rely on Fleury to steal a game or two, which he’s done time and time again in the playoffs. Ottawa’s inexperience in net will put pressure on the offense to score more, which could prove difficult with the loss of Kovalev. For the fifth straight series, they'll win it on the road. Penguins in six.