We have arrived at my favourite time of year -- the Stanley Cup playoffs. This year's playoff fever in the Nation's Capital can be described as virtually non-existent, as the city's fickle fanbase have completely abandoned the Sens bandwagon, stripped it for parts, and used the money to buy Canadiens paraphernalia. That being said, I still have a sliver of faith, and if one-to-three miracles happen we may advance to the Second Round to face the Flyin' Frenchmen. Let me begin my completely unbiased evaluation of how the two teams matchup (I am using a convoluted points system "out of five" rather than a straight-up pick'em style).
Actually let me begin by saying the Penguins not dressing Crosby for game 82 to practically guarantee this matchup (Pittsburgh should have obliviated the Flyers, but instead bumbled through an ugly game to lose 2-0) was a bad choice. Karma is a female dog, and even if/when they win this round, they will regret this decision if/when they have come up against the Canadiens without home ice. Moving right along, though...
Ottawa -- Daniel Alfredsson. Injured, and possibly lost for up to four weeks.
Pittsburgh -- Evgeni Malkin. His rise to the forefront of the Penguins juggernaut has been eye-opening, to say the least. As a former #2 overall pick, his skills were never in doubt; but no one (possibly just me) knew he could lead the charge for an extended period of time. He seems to fall back a bit when Crosby is in the line up, but is still better than 99 % of the league. He would have won the Hart (and been drafted first overall) if not for Ovechkin.
Ottawa - 0 (running total of 0); Pittsburgh - 5 (5)
Top Player (1A)
Ottawa -- Dany Heatley. Ottawa's top sniper has been one of the best in the NHL...with the exception of the last two months. Since returning from his shoulder injury, Heatley hasn't been the same consistent threat that lit the lamp regularly for the previous two and a half seasons. He is tentative in traffic and in the corners, and tries to use the pull-through move every time he comes up against someone. He still can put up a big game, but can he put up the four to five big games Ottawa will need to escape this matchup?
Pittsburgh -- Sidney Crosby. Ankle injury or not, Crosby is going to unleash his considerable fury on the team that eliminated his squad one year ago in the opening round. He knows, as does everyone in hockey, that legends grow in the playoffs. Crosby has a head-start in the "legendary" status category, but he knows that an early-exit from this year's playoff against a seriously under-manned Ottawa squad will be nothing short of disappointing (doubly so if Washington beats Philly and the legend of Ovechkin grows instead of his).
Ottawa - 2 (2); Pittsburgh - 3 (8)
Ottawa -- A good group of solid veterans has been outshone in the last few games by a fresh faced rookie, Brian Lee, who has all but guaranteed Redden is done after this season in Ottawa. If your best defenseman going into the playoffs has less then 10 games of NHL experience your team is in deep trouble. It may be too early to say Lee is the best of the group, but they are playing pretty poorly. Redden has been playing some sort of self-taught zone defense, where he prefers to cover the areas near and around the puck carrier but isn't overly concerned about getting the puck. Volchenkov is, once again, blocking shots like he thinks he is the answer to Ottawa's goaltending drama, taking himself out of the play in key situations. Phillips is the leader, but seems like to nice a guy to hold his brethren responsible for poor play. Plus, he is the uncrowned king of taking a bad penalty at a bad time. Meszaros is a disaster, and while Commodore is a pillar of strength, he isn't a feared pillar of skill. I remember when D was a priority in this city...
Pittsburgh -- Gonchar is a machine. He is a feared weapon on the PP and a steady defender otherwise. The rest of the group is a nice balance of youth and grit and though they aren't great, they are better than good. Gill is a solid shutdown guy but can be exposed with speed, but if he matches up against Spezza and Heatley, neither of whom are overly fleet of skate, he could be effective. I like what Whitney and Letang bring to the table offensively, but some forecheck pressure can cause them to get a case of the "Reddens," which is to say they can turn it over while deep in their own zone.
Ottawa - 2 (4); Pittsburgh - 3 (11)
Ottawa -- Gerber CAN be good. Can he be good enough to win four of seven is the question. The answer is probably not. If Pittsburgh shooters are patient, Gerber will practically invite them to go upstairs on him. He has won two cups as a backup, so he has definitely seen what it takes to win. Let's see if he can put that knowledge into practice. Do I even need to go into what happens if the Sens look to Rayzer Ray?
Pittsburgh -- Fleury is a great, young goalie with a high talent ceiling. He has improved alot this year and seems to be on the cusp of stardom. He doesn't, however, have any mentorship internally (Does Barasso have any role with the Pens? If he does then never mind...), so who knows how this aloof youngster copes with the escalating pressures of being the favourites. Conklin has played well-above expectations, so having to turn to him if things start poorly for the Pens won't hurt.
Ottawa - 2 (6); Pittsburgh - 3 (14)
Ottawa -- Ottawa has taken an insane number of penalties this year, and with three of their top penalty kill guys on the shelf, Vermette and McAmmond need to play out of their minds for Ottawa to stay in the series. The PP in Ottawa has been disgraceful this season. Spezza needs to find Heatley and Heatley needs to get open. Ottawa's defence -- are you listening Meszaros and Schubert -- need to hit the net!
Pittsburgh -- Their PP is dangerous, but can be lazy and sometimes telegraphs their passes (which I guess is technically still dangerous). Their PK, well I'll be honest, I'm not sure how good their PK is. I know Hossa was incredible in years past, but seems to be having troubles meshing with Crosby (surprise, surprise). If they cover Heatley on the PP and play aggressive they should be able to control Ottawa.
Ottawa - 2 (8); Pittsburgh - 3 (17)
Ottawa -- The Sens have gotten grittier, but have had to sacrifice their skill level to do so. Having a lineup with Neil, Bass, Donovan, Schubert, and Lapointe isn't overly intimidating if they aren't a threat to bury any turnovers. None of these guys are above-average players in their own end either, so if they don't absolutely punish Pittsburgh's D on a heavy, heavy forecheck, they serve virtually no purpose. Commodore is nails on D -- he needs to keep Crosby outside, and crush him if he gets the chance. And keep crushing him because Crosby will not stay down.
Pittsburgh -- Malone is their lone threat to score out of their gritty guys, but Ruutu and Talbot can score if given a prime opportunity. Ruutu also can drive opponents crazy, and if he gets in Ottawa's head early and they focus on him rather then the players they should be focused on stopping this will be a short series. Orpik can be punishing on the back end, and Laraque will make anyone pay if given the opportunity. Oh, and Roberts is back -- does this help or hinder? He has lost about 3 steps, but could probably pick his game up since it is Ottawa.
Ottawa - 3 (11); Pittsburgh - 2 (19)
Ottawa -- Cory Stillman. He has won before and he is smart as hell. If he is serious about considering a stay in Ottawa, it is time to step up and show what you are made of. I have no reasons to believe that Stillman can't fill the leadership gap left by Alfie.
Pittsburgh -- Marian Hossa. He is a former 100 point guy and is in his contract year. He is getting regular icetime with Crosby. If he catches fire, which shouldn't be out of the question, break out the brooms.
Ottawa - 3 (14); Pittsburgh - 2 (21)
I'm sure there are hundreds of more things to break down (coaches, home ice, etc) but my fingies are getting sore. Ottawa has a chance, but it isn't a big one. Ottawa needs to bother Ruutu before he can bother them -- a pest for a pest. I suggest the sacrificial lamb be Bass, because that is who he is going to become for us in the future, so he may as well learn from the best. As for stopping the rest of the Penguins, good luck!
Who am I kidding -- Pens in 6. The Senators just haven't been a "team" this year, and without arguably their top player, and their top three penalty killers, they are done for (PS -- this should be considered bulletin board material).
Oh, and MTL in 5; NJ is 7; WSH in 5; NSH in 6; SJ in 6; ANA in 6; and MIN in 7.