Flick the Switch?

The 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins (47-28-7, 101 points) vs #5 Ottawa Senators (44-32-6, 94 points)

With the Stanley Cup Playoffs finally upon us, it’s time for the first of what I hope will be many playoff previews for the Ottawa Senators this spring. Time to break it down!

Season History:

Although these two teams split the season series with 2 wins and 2 losses apiece, they haven’t played each other in almost two and a half months. Here are this season’s game-by-game results:

  • Game 1: 4-1 Ottawa loss on October 12th
  • Game 2: 6-2 Ottawa win on November 19th
  • Game 3: 8-2 Ottawa loss on December 23rd
  • Game 4: 4-1 Ottawa win on January 28th

Advantage: Even

Playoff Rivalry:

  • 2007: Defeated Pittsburgh, 4 games to 1 in the first round
  • 2008: Lost to Pittsburgh, 4 games to 0 in the first round

It’s been two years since the Senators last played the Penguins in a playoff series and a lot has changed since then. Pittsburgh’s been to two consecutive Stanley Cup Finals and Ottawa has languished since their own Cup Finals appearance in 2007. But we’re back baby!

For the third time in the past four seasons, the Senators will square off against the Penguins in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. How big of a deal is this? Well, every time that these two teams get together in the first round, the victor has always gone on to play for the Cup.

Notwithstanding the drama surrounding John Muckler’s inability to acquire Gary Roberts in ’07 (Ed. note: A blessing in disguise), it’s surprising to see that relations have been relatively cordial between these two teams. You know things are bad when the only reason to boo the Penguins is out of respect, envy or the fact that Crosby reminds you of the infamous ’05 NHL Entry Draft.

Advantage: Even

Forwards:

As much as I like Ottawa’s depth, grit and speed, they don’t have an offensive player who could carry around Bill Guerin’s corpse the way that Malkin and Crosby have. And now that Malkin has finished his second job freelancing as an Islanders ice girl, everyone expects him and Crosby to dominate the scoresheet for the Penguins in the postseason.

It’s no secret that Pittsburgh’s a Jekyll & Hyde kind of team when one of their elite scorers is going and for Ottawa to have any success against the Penguins, they need to limit the offensive chances that Crosby and Malkin get. Here’s my point: I think Crosby is going to get his points regardless of how well Cory Clouston implements the match ups that he wants. Considering Malkin’s injury problems and disappointing regular season (28 goals, 49 assists), there may be no better opportunity for the Senators to limit his impact. From what I’ve heard, Spezza’s line is going to go up against Crosby’s line and Fisher/Cullen/Michalek will be called upon to shut down Malkin.

I’d mention that Jordan Staal may be the most overhyped player in the NHL but you probably wouldn’t hear me over the voices of all the NHL experts singing his praise. Surrounding Pittsburgh’s top three centers are underwhelming names like Fedotenko, Kunitz, Kennedy, Rupp, Talbot, Dupuis, Ponikarovsky and Cooke. Hell, they even have Craig Adams — this year’s Bill Muckalt Trophy winner. A trophy that goes to the NHL forward who plays in the most number of games without scoring a goal (82 GP, 0 goals).

The absence of Kovalev will intensify the pressure on Spezza and Alfredsson to produce but Ottawa has the better supporting cast in Michalek, Neil, Kelly, Ruutu, Cullen, Foligno, Regin and Fisher. GM Bryan Murray has done a good year assembling an assorted ensemble of hardworking players who are responsible defensively and can put the puck in the back of the net. As it has been demonstrated over the course of the season, it’s a streaky collective who can string some wins together. But when they’re off, they’re an incredibly frustrating group to watch.

Advantage: Pittsburgh

Defence:

Here are the names that you need to remember for Pittsburgh: Gonchar, Leopold, Letang, Orpik, Eaton and Goligoski. With the loss of Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill to last summer’s free agent period, gone are the defensive stalwarts who helped the Penguins play a style conducive to playoff success. In their place, they have been replaced by some underappreciated puckmoving defencemen. Whether it works remains to be seen but it is worth noting that Pittsburgh has allowed the second most number of goals for any playoff team. (Ed. note: Just try not to pay attention to the name of the team that has allowed the most.)

Conversely, Ottawa responds with a top four that includes Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov, Andy Sutton and Erik Karlsson. Despite the lack of another puckmoving defenceman to compliment Karlsson, the biggest X-factor for the blueline will be Dan Bylma’s ability to use his home ice advantage to get the last change matchups to get his offensive forwards lined up against the Carkner/Campoli pairing.

Slight Advantage: Pittsburgh

Goaltending:

For as much publicity as he has received for being the better and more experienced goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury’s season numbers are eerily similar to Brian Elliott’s.

Fleury: 37-21-6, 1 SO, 2.65 GAA, .910 SV%
Elliott: 29-18-4, 5 SO’s, 2.57 GAA, .910 SV%

The one guy who Ottawa fears more than Crosby and Malkin? Pascal Leclaire. If he makes one appearance in the playoffs, the Senators and my liver will both be in trouble.

Advantage: Pittsburgh

Injuries:

At the earliest, Filip Kuba is expected to be sidelined until the second round while he recuperates from surgery on his uterus the bulging disc in his lower back. The situation is a bit more bleak for Alexei Kovalev, who will miss the duration of the playoffs with a torn ACL. The only significant injury for the Penguins is Matt Cooke. And when I say it’s significant, I’m not referring to Cooke, I’m referring to the punch that Evander Kane used put him on the shelf.

Advantage: Pittsburgh. If they win the series, I’ll be resigned to spending the summer telling myself that Kovalev would have made a difference in the playoffs.

Coaching:

It’s somewhat ironic that both Dan Bylsma and Cory Clouston came to their respective clubs under somewhat similar circumstances. Both were hired when their teams were floundering down the stretch and both have returned their teams to prosperous times.

I realize that Bylsma does have a ring, but I don’t know how comfortable I am giving too much credit to a guy who only has to pencil in Crosby, Malkin, Staal down the middle of his lineup card. One look at Cory Clouston and you can realize that he’s a sleep deprived workaholic who has done his due diligence to identify and strategize how to exploit this Penguins squad. Barring some injustice, Clouston should be a lock for a Jack Adams nomination. The only blemish on Clouston’s record thus far are the too many men on the ice bench minors that have become regularities.

Advantage: Slight edge to Pittsburgh. Call it the Greg Carvel factor.

Leadership:

Alfredsson versus Crosby. Two classy, reserved players who lead by the example that they set on the ice. Who would you rather have? The guy who stars in Tim Horton’s commercials or the NHL’s longest tenured captain who recently celebrated his 1000th game played?

I can’t decide and as long as Alfredsson doesn’t lose his place in any pre-game motivational pep talk, Ottawa should be okay.

Advantage: Even.

Playoff Slogan:

All in, All Red
(Senators) versus Defy Ordinary (Penguins). Picking the superior mantra out of these two is like being forced to choose what smells worse: vomit or Sidney Crosby’s ass crack. (Ed. note: I suppose I could always just ask Pierre McGuire.)

Personally, I’d love to see the Senators ditch the All In, All Red and go with Club Penguins, Not seals.

Advantage: Even

Intangibles:

The underdog up against the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Chris Neil Penalty Face versus Matt Cooke’s FAS Face. Jarkko Ruutu fashioning his patented shit eating grin while playing for the Senators this time around. No Gary Roberts. With a Cup victory last season and no incentive to stick it to Marian Hossa, will Pittsburgh have the hunger to make a deep postseason run? Or will their complacency make them susceptible to a first round upset? Have the Senators finally gotten past the psychological trauma inflicted by the Trojan gladiator’s speech given during their last playoff appearance? Will fatigue play a factor? Has anyone reminded Anton Volchenkov that he’s headed towards unrestricted free agency and that a big postseason would go a long way in helping him secure a new and lucrative contract?

Advantage: Ottawa

Special Teams:

Fellate the offensive skills of Gonchar/Crosby/Malkin all you want, but there’s no discernable difference in the specialty team metrics between these two clubs:

  • Ottawa: 84.3% PK, 16.9% PP
  • Pittsburgh: 84.1% PK, 17.2% PP

Perhaps it should be noted that Ottawa’s power play operated at a 19% clip following the Olympic break. Considering how goal deprived this team was during their post-break losing streak, there is reason for optimism

Advantage:
Even

Jerseys:

It’s a shame that neither team rocks the uniforms that they wore in either in the late 80′s or early 90′s. You know, the ones that Pittsburgh wore before Kevin Stevens moved on to St. Louis and got busted for cocaine possession and soliciting a prostitute. Truthfully, it’s not like it even matters. James Cameron would have a hard time making Ottawa’s modern 3-D incarnation look good.

Advantage: Pittsburgh

Owners:

As often as I poke fun at The Euge’s propensity to appear on Toronto sports talk radio and come off as a meddling/publicity hound in the blend of George Steinbrenner and Mark Cuban, he and Mario Lemieux deserve the gratitude of their fanbases for saving their respective franchises from financial ruin.

Although Melnyk loses points for not being in the Hockey Hall of Fame, or for throwing good pool parties, he never has to worry about his team’s captain bringing strange women back to his abode.

Advantage: Ottawa

Team Chemistry:

It’s encouraging to see that Ottawa has gelled together nicely since carting off the frontrunning Dany Heatley (Ed. note: Congratulations to Dany for finishing this season with 39 goals, the same number of goals that he scored last season.) On the flip side, Pittsburgh’s a team that has been to the Cup Finals for the past two seasons.

Advantage: Pittsburgh

Every Series Needs a Goat — The Player With Most on the Line:

Had he not gotten hurt against the Tampa Bay Lightning, I would have said that Alexei Kovalev was the player whose reputation was at stake here. Like the Pittsburgh Penguins, many were hoping that he’d be able to flick the switch when the hockey mattered most.

With Kovalev on the shelf for the next four months, I don’t think the expectations on any other Senator will outweigh any scrutiny will fall heavily upon a player like Malkin or Fleury if the defending champs are upset.

Advantage: Ottawa

Most Entertaining Player:

Erik Karlsson. Hands down. No one on either roster has the ability to induce a stroke, heart attack or rousing round of applause every time he touches the puck.

Advantage: Ottawa

Worst Television Commercial:

Jason Spezza’s Jubillee Jeweller commercial against Maxime Talbot’s A&L Motors commercial. (Ed. note: I was going to embed both videos into this post, but for whatever reason, the Talbot one didn’t allow for embedding. Rather than just publish the Spezza one, I provided the links to both.)

Advantage: Pittsburgh. Max Talbot is a superstar.

Celebrity Fan(s):

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is all but assured to be in attendance and while he’s in town filming a movie, Cuba Gooding Jr. might use the playoffs as a platform to get some valuable face time. With the Senators being relevant again, maybe we’ll be treated to a rare Matthew Perry sighting. And if that’s not enough, brace yourselves.  I fully expect the CBC to use this opportunity to bring Carrie Underwood camera pans to Kate Hudson World Series levels.

I guess things could be worse, it’s not like Senators fans are pining for a Jeff Goldblum appearance.

Advantage: Ottawa

Home Ice Advantage:

  • Pittsburgh: 25-12-4 (home) and 22-16-3 (road)
  • Ottawa: 26-11-4 (home) and 18-21-2(road)

One thing about the Igloo (Mellon Arena): it is a dump. Jean-Claude Van Damme should have done everyone a favour and let the terrorists blow it up in the movie Sudden Death. Regardless, the Penguins are calling for a Winnipeg Jets inspired whiteout for the first two home playoff games. Each frontrunning Penguins fan who attends a playoff game will receive a complimentary white t-shirt and a white rally towel.

 

Because of lowered expectations and some other coping mechanisms, this is the most relaxed I’ve ever seen the Senators fanbase. Will any of it have any impact upon how Ottawa responds during its games? I wouldn’t bet on it. Because of Ottawa’s tortured playoff history, once the games start, I expect the ScotiaBank crowds to go catatonic whenever things don’t go our way. A soft goal here or there and the air gets collectively sucked out of the building. The mere mention of the name Lalime spontaneously causes us to plug our ears and bellow “Lalalalalalalala!”

After winning their Cup, Penguins fans have a certain swagger to them. Hell, I don’t even know if the names Mike Green or Alex Ovechkin invoke fear anymore. Because of their winning ways, they’re comfortable with where they’re at and I don’t blame them. But with raised expectations come raised stakes and it’ll be interesting to see how the Penguins fans respond if their team has trouble flicking the switch.

Advantage: Pittsburgh

Media:

In the words of Sean Leahy, the Yahoo! Sports‘ Associate Editor for Puck Daddy, “Has Don Brennan announced which body part of Sidney Crosby’s he’d like to see the Senators focus on?”

Without Georges Laraque around to police the media, it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of angles the local Ottawa media will work themselves into. Regardless, it seems like every pundit and hockey expert is expecting a Pittsburgh win. If they, or any big name players get off to a slow start, Pittsburgh is going to have to answer some tough questions.

Advantage: Big edge for Ottawa.

Prediction:

Here’s my prediction that ran as part of James Gordon’s Prediction Panel:

While much of the attention will deservingly go to the champion Pittsburgh Penguins, it is easy to overlook the Ottawa Senators. Say what you want about Pittsburgh’s vaunted offensive stars, Crosby and Malkin, or the team’s better goalie as reasons to like the reigning champions. But it’s not like this team is going into the playoffs playing their best hockey. Too often, I’ve read that the Penguins can simply flick the switch once the hockey matters. Sound familiar? It should. It was the same naive defense mechanism that we used to talk ourselves through the 2007-08 Senators team’s horrendous second half.

Conversely, this Senators team can’t have its talent accurately measured on paper. They have the depth, they have the grit, and they ultimately, they have nothing to lose. A unique blend of intangibles that leads me to believe that the longer the series goes, the better it suits Ottawa.

Ottawa in seven games.

Getting to Know the Opposition:


The Pensblog
– Where you can find entertaining Pittsburgh sports news that doesn’t involve Ben Roethlisberger’s greasy hog.

Schedule:

  • Game 1: Wednesday, April 14th @ Pittsburgh, 7pm ET
  • Game 2: Friday, April 16th @ Pittsburgh, 7:00pm ET
  • Game 3: Sunday, April 18th @ Ottawa, 6:30pm ET
  • Game 4: Tuesday, April 20th @ Ottawa, 7:00pm ET
  • Game 5: Thursday, April 22nd @ Pittsburgh, 7:00pm ET (if necessary)
  • Game 6: Saturday, April 24th @ Ottawa, 7:00pm ET (if necessary)
  • Game 7: Tuesday, April 27th @ Pittsburgh, 7:00pm ET (if necessary)
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