The first round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs will start on Wednesday, April 9th, with the Pittsburgh Penguins (47-27-8) facing off against the Ottawa Senators (43-31-8). While we saw the same first round matchup last year with Ottawa winning 4-1 before advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals, don’t expect a replay of last year’s series. A lot has changed in the course of a year and the now healthy and confident Pittsburgh Penguins team seem poised to take advantage of a wounded, less confident Ottawa team and make a much deeper run into the playoffs.
After getting off to a slow start on the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins turned their season around after an emotional 6-5 overtime shootout win against the Ottawa Senators on Thanksgiving Day. The Penguins went into that game 8-11-2 at the bottom of the Atlantic Division against the Eastern Conference leading Senators. After that game, the Penguins went 38-16-6 to win the Atlantic Division. The Senators started their season on fire going 16-4-0 before meeting up with the Penguins on Thanksgiving. After that overtime loss to the Penguins, the Senators went 27-27-7, plummeting from 1st in the Eastern Conference to 7th, and nearly missing the playoffs.
So what has changed from last season for the Penguins? First, the Penguins players have matured as individuals and as a team. Unlike last season, the young Penguins now know first hand what to expect in a playoff series. They do not have to rely upon veteran players like Gary Roberts to try and explain what to expect in the playoffs. Much more than that, the Penguins have matured as a team throughout the season as they have dealt with and overcome adversity. The Penguins dealt with the loss of their #1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for over 2-months, their #1 player and league MVP Sidney Crosby for over 2-months, their wiley veteran Gary Roberts for nearly 3-months, and a number of other key players that missed games with various injuries. Despite it all, the resilient young Penguins finished on top of the Atlantic Division, clinching their first division title in 10-years. They also came 2-points shy of claiming the #1 spot atop the Eastern Conference.
Another change for the Penguins is the upgrades made to the lineup. Most notable among them was the NHL’s top-rated winger Marian Hossa from the Atlanta Thrashers. The creative, prolific scorer was acquired to complement Sidney Crosby on the team’s top line, allowing team MVP Evgeni Malkin to continue to center the hottest 2nd line in the NHL. Along with Hossa, the Penguins acquired more speed on wing with Pascal Dupuis and a burly, tough defenseman in Hal Gill. The Penguins trade deals were arguably a significant net positive for the team. Additionally, the Penguins found a gem in third-string goaltender Ty Conklin, who stepped in and more than filled the shoes of Marc-Andre Fleury during his absence. His outstanding play makes him a very formidable backup to Fleury as the Penguins enter the playoffs. Through it all, the Penguins maintained that intangible element of chemistry that is the hallmark of all great sports teams.
Aside from the maturity gained and the changes to the Penguins lineup, several players on the team are having career years. Evgeni Malkin has been sizzling hot in the latter half of the season and finished second in league scoring with 106-points (47G, 59A). Linemate Ryan Malone has come into his own this year by besting his previous career stats with 51-points (27G, 24A), and becoming a real force in front of the net. Veteran Petr Sykora turned in his best performance in 7-years with 63-points (28G, 35A). Veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar had his second best season and finished second in league defenseman scoring behind Niklas Lidstrom with 65-points (12G, 53A). Goaltender Ty Conklingave an MVP-worthy performance by going 18-8-5, with a league 2nd best 0.923 save percentage and 2.51 GAA. And despite an injury shortened season, Marc-Andre Fleury has been phenomenal going 19-10-2, with a career best and league 5th best 0.921 save percentage and 2.33 GAA. Fleury has been 10-2-1 in his 13-starts after returning from injury.
For the Senators, it has been a much different story. At the beginning of the season, the Senators were a team poised to run away with the top seed in the East. By the end of the season, they had to battle to stay in the playoff picture. Things got so bad in the second half of the season that general manager Bryan Murray fired head coach John Paddock on February 27 and placed himself behind the bench. Murray had been the head coach of Ottawa during their Stanley Cup finals run last season. Murray’s presence did little to rouse the failing Senators who went just 7-9-2 in the remaining games and nearly fell out of playoff contention in the tight Eastern Conference.
Heading into the playoffs, the Senators are dealing with additional adversity as top line winger and Captain Daniel Alfredsson is expected to miss the first round with knee and neck injuries. The loss of Alfredsson could be a fatal blow to the Senators who depend upon him for his excellent two-way play. In addition to losing Alfredsson, the Senators will also be playing without centerman Mike Fisher who will also miss the opening series with a knee injury. Another challenge for the Senators is their tenuous goaltending situation. Ray Emery went just 12-13-4 with a 3.13 GAA this season as he lost the starting job to veteran Martin Gerber. Emery’s lackluster play was underscored by disciplinary issues as he showed up late for practice several times andwas fined as a result. Martin Gerber finished the season 30-18-4 with a 2.72 GAA and .910 save percentage, but has failed to keep the team in games as their performance has faded.
While the Senators won the season series against the Penguins (3-0-1), the Penguins now clearly hold the upper hand in this post-season matchup. The Penguins are playing as a team with confidence and are now nearly 100% healthy. The Senators have lost their early season confidence and will be playing with critical elements of their lineup missing. With special teams being a swing factor in the playoffs, the Penguins hold the advantage with a power play that is one of the most lethal in the league while the Senators have significantly struggled on the penalty kill. In net, the Penguins goaltending situation is rock solid, while the Senators goaltending has been tenuous. The Penguins have a huge 15-2-3 home record since January 1st, outscoring their opponents 80-42. The Senators have gone 8-13-2 on the road in the same timeframe, and have been outscored by their opponents 80-61. It would seem to follow that home ice should play heavily in the favor of the Penguins.
After reviewing all of the factors, I am projecting that the Penguins will win the series handily in 5-games.
UPDATED 9 Apr 08 – Video Links: