For the third time in the last four seasons the Penguins will play the Senators in the first round of the playoffs. Each of the previous two times the winner has gone on to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. Ottawa comes in as the hotter team winning seven of their past 10 games while Pittsburgh has only won five of theirs. However, the Penguins have a playoff record of 30-14 over the past two seasons while the Senators are 0-4. So who has the upper hand in the 2010 playoffs?
This matchup breaks down to one factor–A Stanley Cup winning coach versus a coach with no playoff experience. Do not forget though that at this point last year Bylsma had no playoff experience either. The fact is that there is a very small sample size to judge Clouston by. He has made the Senators a powerhouse in their own building losing only 11 times over the course of the season; the road record is another story. Advantage here has to go to the man with a playoff record of 16-8. Bylsma’s cool, calm demeanor behind the bench often translates to the players on the ice. He is a wizard with line shuffling and systematic play which is most valuable in the post-season.
Pittsburgh–Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin/Jordan Staal
Ottawa–Daniel Alfredsson/Jason Spezza/Mike Fisher
The tale of two Alexei’s. Alexei Kovalev and Alexi Ponikarovsky. Ultimately this shakes out to be bad news for the Senators. Kovalev suffered a torn ACL in the final weeks of the season which will keep him from seeing any playoff action. While the Sens will be missing the former Penguins 98 career post-season points what they may be missing more is Alfredsson’s offensive presence. The Ottawa captain only has four goals in his last 24 games and his 20 goals for the season is his lowest output since 1998-1999. Pittsburgh on the other hand is boasting the Maurice Richard trophy winner and has accounted for the fifth most goals in the NHL this season. There is reason for concern for the Stanley Cup Champions though. Prize deadline acquisition Alexi Ponikarovsky has only accounted for two goals in his 16 games as a Penguin. However, linemate Evgeni Malkin has only played in eight of those games, and the ‘Poni Express’ has seen limited time on the power play. Ponikarovsky will come around in the playoffs. Malkin has tallied five goals in his past five games and is back to his Art Ross winning ways. For an indication of how Ponikarovsky will do in the playoffs, look at 2008 acquisition Marian Hossa. The former Penguin recorded only three goals in his 12 regular season games with Pittsburgh, but went on to rack up a career high 26 points in the playoffs.
Too much fire power for the Penguins here. Advantage: Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh–Sergei Gonchar/Kris Letang
Ottawa–Chris Phillips/Anton Volchenkov
Volchenkov is one of the most underrated players in the NHL. The iron man for the Senators consistently goes against the oppositions best players and blocked over 170 shots this year–more than half the amount that Sidney Crosby took this entire season. Phillips is no slouch himself, recording 204 blocked shots on the year. Without a doubt the Senators have better shut-down defensemen than the Penguins, but injury has taken its toll on the blue-liners. Leading defensive scorer Filip Kuba is out for the first round series, and with the Penguins top three offensive defensemen outscoring the Senators top three by 36 points, Ottawa will be desperate for a blue-line scoring touch. While Pittsburgh’s defense has amazing offensive talent, they are still suspect when it comes to tightening up in the defensive zone. They key to the Penguins success this post-season depends on Letang’s ability to generate offense and Goligoski’s ability to crack down defensively. The acquisition of Jordan Leopold was brilliant by General Manager Ray Shero, and makes the Penguins defense better than it was last season at this point–the problem is that last year’s defense was only the fifth best in the playoffs in terms of goals-against per game.
Ottawa’s defense is too good at defense not to give them the advantage here. Advantage: Ottawa.
42 saves, 3 goals against, 2 game saving gems against Alex Ovechkin and Nick Lidstrom–those are the 2009 game seven stats of Marc-Andre Fleury. Anybody second guessing the ‘Flowers’ reputation as a big game goalie should rewind the 2009 playoffs. It is not even necessary to mention the stellar save on Philadelphia’s Jeff Carter. Brian Elliott is a fine goalie in his own right though. His five shutouts are four more than Fleury’s, and his 29 wins in 55 games is impressive–but goalies are made in the playoffs. As far as experience in net being overrated, seven of the last nine Stanley Cup winning goalies had previously lost in the Finals before ever hoisting Lord Stanley.
Too much experience and too much skill for Fleury. Advantage: Penguins.
Pittsburgh–19th ranked power play, 9th ranked penalty kill
Ottawa–21st ranked power play, 8th ranked penalty kill
While neither team has been impressive on the power play this year, both have sported strong penalty kill units. Just as a point of comparison, the Penguins went into the 2009 playoffs with the 20th ranked power play and the eighth ranked penalty kill. Pittsburgh also has the ninth most power play goals in the league this year, meaning that although they do not convert at a high percentage, they get plenty of opportunities on the man-advantage. Ottawa only had 26 power play goals this year, 24th most in the league. The man-advantage is looking up for Pittsburgh though, as Malkin, Gonchar, and possibly Ponikarovsky will all play on the power play together–something which was hardly seen during the regular season.
It is hard to give an advantage to either team here, but the plethora of Senators injuries combined with the large jump in PP% for the Penguins from the 2009 regular season to the post-season gives the slight nod to Pittsburgh. Advantage: Pittsburgh.
Many people look at the Penguins as coming into the playoffs cold this year, but possibly the Stanley Cup champions were just on cruise control. Pittsburgh is confident and has been to the Finals the past two seasons, which means they know how to win in the playoffs. Simply ‘turning-it-on’ in the playoffs seems like a tough task for any team, but with the Penguins finally being healthy and facing an opponent which they have had recent success over do not look for this to be a close series. Advantage: Penguins in 5 games.