The Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators will meet in the playoffs for the third time in the past four years and both teams seem comfortable with the match-up. On one hand there is the defending champions who trampled over Ottawa in their cup run last season, while Ottawa feels they can give Pittsburgh a run for their money based on their 2-2 record during the regular season.
On the injury front, Alex Kovalev will miss the entire playoffs with a torn ACL while Filip Kuba had back surgery a few days ago and is likely missing the post-season.
Let’s break this down bit by bit and see which team owns the advantage in the main facets of hockey.
In Pittsburgh you have an offensive juggernaut, with arguably two of the top five players in the league, who have been scoring at a rapid pace over the past few weeks. Malkin appears to be healthy and poised for a playoff run while the co-Maurice Richard in Sidney Crosby winner will look to build of a season that saw him score 50+ for the first time in his career. The key for Pittsburgh will be secondary scoring and players like Jordan Staal, Maxime Talbot and newcomer Alexei Ponikarovsky will be expected to find the back of net, which was a strong point for the Penguins in 2009. Staal, Ponikarovsky and Bill Guerin will be expected to work the boards and wear down the opposition defence while players like Tyler Kennedy, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cooke will be expected to use their speed and grit to give Ottawa defenceman’s fits.
Meanwhile for Ottawa, Jason Spezza, who has found his scoring touch, and Daniel Alfredsson will have to shoulder the offensive burden for a team that lost some of its secondary scoring when Kovalev got injured. Milan Michalek has returned from his injury but there is no telling how much pain the 24-year-old will be in during the series. Mike Fisher, who scored 25 goals this year, will have to score goals so Ottawa can compete with the offense of Pittsburgh. Overall, the top line of Ottawa can only do so much and rookie second line centre Peter Regin, who is playing in his first playoff, will have to mature quickly
Edge: Pittsburgh. Too much talent compared to Ottawa’s one line of consistent scoring.
Pittsburgh is fairly deep on defence but struggled over the last few weeks of the regular season giving up 20 goals in the last six games. The acquisition of Jordon Leopold appeared to make the Pens that much better but the defence will need to re-focus for the playoff run. Sergei Gonchar appears healthy and Kris Letang will be expected to be that much better than last year as Pittsburgh aim for another cup. Alex Goligoski has matured as the season went on while Jay McKee was made for post season with his willingness to sacrifice his body to keep the puck out. But, once again the key for this d-core will be to translate their play from mid February to mid March into the playoffs.
For Ottawa, the defence will look to do exactly what they have done to Sidney Crosby in past seasons; shut him down. Crosby has scored the least amount of goals against Ottawa than any other Eastern Conference team. The addition of big Andy Sutton has made their defence tougher and more defensive minded while improving their five-on-five play coverage. Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov will have their hands full with Pittsburgh’s forwards but have proven this season they are capable of handling the load. Erik Karlsson, who will be playing in his first playoff, will have to control his nerves in the aggressive play of the playoffs as he will be counted on to have a steady hand in crunch time.
Edge: Toss Up! Both teams are fairly good on the back end and Pittsburgh’s slump going into the playoffs did not help their case.
Pittsburgh has struggled all season on the power play which is a mystery with all the talent they have. Towards the end of the season, Pittsburgh moved the puck well and was getting shots on goal which is encouraging. If the Pens can get shots on goal and crash the net with authority, the power play could be their x-factor in their playoff run.
Meanwhile for their penalty kill..they’ll be fine. This team has always been good at the penalty kill and it has a lot to do with the activity of the forwards. Adam Kennedy, Matt Cooke and of course Jordan Staal all have active sticks and bodies on the penalty kill and Marc-Andre Fleury will need to play stellar hockey when Pittsburgh is short-handed.
Similar to Pittsburgh, Ottawa has also had their woes with the man-advantage. Milan Michalek missing action resulted in the Senators power play efficiency going down and they will try to get back some of that momentum in this series. Not having a leader at the point could convince Cory Clouston to put Alfredsson at the blue-line but regardless, the lack of net presence is the catalyst for Ottawa.
Ottawa was a top ten penalty killing team this season and that has everything to do with their ability to block shots. These guys sacrifice the body and Pittsburgh will have to work to get the puck through. Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly are excellent at anticipating the puck and their defenceman block shots for a living so Pittsburgh will have their hands full with the man-advantage.
Edge: Pittsburgh. I have more faith in Pittsburgh’s pp than Ottawa’s and the difference in playoff experience between the pipes gives the Penguins the advantage.
Marc-Andre Fleury has been to the finals the past two years, winning one cup, and clearly thrives in big game situations. He is as steady as they come in this year playoffs but has not played well going into the post-season. Collectively, Pittsburgh has been poor defensively but Fleury will need to raise his game come Wednesday.
In Ottawa it appears Brian Elliot will be taking the duties in net and based on season play, they made the right decision. Elliot had his best season in the NHL and will look to build on his resume this post-season. Only problem is, he is facing the defending champions. As good of a year he has had, I don’t think he is ready to out-duel Marc-Andre Fleury and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Edge: Marc-Andre Fleury and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 6.
Pittsburgh has too much talent and are too playoff poised to lose in the first round to the Ottawa Senators. I said six because I was not a fan of how the Pens finished the season and the Senators are on a high coming into the playoffs. But, if Pittsburgh can re-focus and be ready for playoff hockey come Game 1, this series could easily be over in less than 6.
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Written by Amit Mann