11 April 2007

Playoff preview: Ottawa Senators (4) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (5)


Series D - #4 Ottawa vs. #5 Pittsburgh
Date Time (ET) Location Network
Wed., April 11 7:00 p.m. at Ottawa CBC, RDS, VERSUS
Sat., April 14 3:00 p.m. at Ottawa CBC, RDS, NBC
Sun., April 15 6:00 p.m. at Pittsburgh VERSUS, CBC, RDS
Tue., April 17 7:00 p.m. at Pittsburgh VERSUS, CBC, RDS
*Thu., April 19 7:00 p.m. at Ottawa CBC, RDS, VERSUS
*Sun., April 22 1:00 p.m. at Pittsburgh NBC, CBC, RDS
*Tue., April 24 7:00 p.m. at Ottawa VERSUS, CBC, RDS

If there was a series that was made to introduce sports fans to playoff hockey, this would be the one. The Senators and Penguins are the second and third highest scoring teams in the league and have enough marquee names to interest any casual fan, including the league's leading scorer (and top marketing tool) Sidney Crosby.

Why Ottawa
should win the series: Ottawa could be the sleeping giant in these playoffs - they're loaded up front with the usual suspects in Dany Heatley (50 goals, 105 points), Jason Spezza (34 goals, 87 points in just 67 games), and Daniel Alfredsson (87 points). They have supplemental scoring in Mike Comrie, Antoine Vermette, Chris Kelly, and the criminally underrated Mike Fisher. Ray Emery - last year's playoff scapegoat - started the year as the number two netminder behind Martin Gerber but when Gerber faltered, Emery took the job and secured it, ending up seventh in save percentage (and first in penalty minutes) and providing the spark that turned the Senators' season around.

Why Ottawa
should be afraid: Even after all that success, they drew a very tough opening round assignment against Pittsburgh. Ottawa lost toughness on defence when they couldn't resign the towering Zdeno Chara and Pittsburgh has just the pack of buzzing forwards to exploit any defencive deficiencies. Ottawa may be strong but the sting of repeated playoff disappointments is still fresh, and will be until they manage to break through to the Cup finals. Even though this series looks to be evenly matched, the pressure is squarely on the veteran Ottawa club to win, as a first-round loss - however legitimate - could spell the breakup of this club.

Why Pittsburgh
should win the series: Young, fast, aggressive, exciting. They weren't supposed to come this far, this fast. 19 year old scoring champion Crosby (120 points), rookies Evgeni Malkin (33 goals, 85 points) and Jordan Staal (29 goals, seven shorthanded)...veterans Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts...Sergei Gonchar having a great bounce-back season on defence with 67 points...this is a team that plays up-tempo hockey for better or worse. When they are clicking, few teams can keep up with them. Ottawa stands a chance of being outskated in this series as Pittsburgh won three of four versus the Senators this season.

Why Pittsburgh
should be afraid: For the same reasons Ottawa should: this is the most compelling and difficult first-round series. Ottawa may have some mental hangups before and after the games, but on the ice few teams can match them for talent. If experience counts for anything, the Senators have been there time and time again as a group where only a handful of Penguins have experienced the postseason. Marc-Andre Fleury will be under great scrutiny as the former number one overall pick in 2003 will see every save and goal allowed analyzed like he's never known at the NHL level. He cannot be inconsistent if the Penguins are to win this.

Random useless but fun playoff facts: The Penguins have had a seismic existence - making the playoffs 21 times in their history (dating to 1967) and winning two Stanley Cups, but have also suffered through two separate financial disasters 30 years apart. They've also suffered through two of the more humiliating playoff defeats: in the second round of the 1975
playoffs they faced the New York Islanders and jumped out to a 3-0 lead, only to squander it to the upstart Isles and ultimately lose game seven 1-0 on home ice, becoming just the second pro sports team (1942 Detroit Red Wings vs. Toronto Maple Leafs) to lose a series after such a lead. In 1993 they were the two-time defending Cup champs and President's Trophy winners for the first time, setting a record along the way by winning 17 games in a row. After destroying New Jersey in round one (and setting another record by winning their 14th straight playoff game) they were shocked once again by the inferior Islanders in game seven, losing in dramatic fashion at home in overtime. The old Ottawa Senators won the first Stanley Cup after the NHL took control of it for good, in the spring of 1927. The modern Senators have had much regular season success over the past decade but have fallen short in the playoffs - winning their division four of the past eight seasons, and the President's Trophy in 2003, but have only advanced to the conference finals one time in that span, losing a heartbreaking seven game set to New Jersey that same year.

Our pick:
For once Ottawa was lying in the weeds all year, in the shadow of teams like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and New Jersey. At Christmas, the Senators were a .500 team but only lost seven games in regulation afterwards, making them as good as any team in the league....such as the Penguins, who also were .500 on December 27th. So we have two of the best teams in the league, especially over the second half, facing off in a first round battle. A toss-up? Perhaps. This is the kind of series that could hinge on any unimagined factor, but I'll go with a hunch that youth will prevail in this series. Pittsburgh in 7.

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