Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Your First Round Prognostos...Penguins vs. Senators

Next up in our tour of the other playoff series…

Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs. Ottawa Senators (7)

Season series:

Nov. 22: Penguins 6 at Senators 5 (SO)
Dec. 13: Senators 4 at Penguins 1
Feb. 23: Senators 4 at Penguins 3 (OT)
Mar. 1: at Senators 5, Penguins 4

Even though the Senators won the season series and bring more playoff experience to this series, there is something more than ominous about this matchup. It has the whiff of change about it. Pittsburgh has the motivation of having lost in the opening round to Ottawa last year, and they are – let’s face it – an extraordinarily talented team that is as healthy as it has been in months, with Marc-Andre Fleury and Sidney Crosby appearing to be recovered from their respective ankle injuries (or at least as much as they will be for this season).

Pittsburgh lost the battle of numbers to the Senators this season every bit as much as they lost the win-loss contest:

Goals for/against: 13/18
Power play goals for/against: 3/6
Even-strength goals for/against: 10/11
Power play: 3/22 (13.6%)
Penalty killing: 7/13 (53.9%)
Record, one-goal games: 1-1-1
Record, 3+ goal games: 0-1

And, the big guns upon which the Penguins will rely haven’t had any particular success against this team…

Evgeni Malkin: 2-3-5, even
Sidney Crosby: 0-1-1, even (two games)
Marian Hossa: 0-3-3, -3 (all with Atlanta)
Sergei Gonchar: 1-2-3, -1

If there is someone to watch, though, it might be Ryan Malone, who is 4-2-6, even, in his four games worth of work against Ottawa this year.

The great unknown here is goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury had a 40-win season last year and this year finished with a sparkling 10-2-1, 1.53, .950 record after returning from an ankle injury. Despite the remarkable run Ty Conklin had when Fleury went down, Fleury is the unquestioned number one goalie. But the playoffs have been another matter for Fleury in his young career. Since turning pro, he is 3-10, 3.78, .869 in his AHL and NHL playoff career and has not won a playoff series. Which Fleury shows up will be as important a factor as any in determining how far the Penguins will go this year.

What might make things a bit easier for Fleury, and for the Penguins in general, is that the Senators come into this series wounded in important areas. Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher are out with head and knee injuries, respectively. They are being described as out for “weeks,” which might mean “months” if the Senators can’t find a way to discover production from elsewhere in their lineup. Alfredsson was 3-5-8, -1 in four games against the Penguins this year. As far as the remaining leaders on this team are concerned, there is some substantial production against the Penguins this year…

Jason Spezza: 4-4-8, +4
Dany Heatley: 6-0-6, +5
Cory Stillman: 1-3-4, -1 (incl. games w/Carolina)
Antoine Vermette: 1-2-3, even
Wade Reddan: 0-5-5, +3

As if the injury situation isn’t enough for the Senators, there is the goaltending situation. Martin Gerber has taken over the number one job, and one would have to think he’ll get the call to start the series. However, despite his 2-0-1 record against the Penguins this year, his 3.25, .877 numbers don’t inspire the greatest confidence. Ray Emery, who appears to have played himself out of Ottawa, if the Senators can find a taker in the off-season for the two remaining years on his contract, has played in one game since late-February. He has a 1-0-0 record against the Penguins this year (2.77, .914), and he was the goalie of record in all five games of a 4-1 Senators series victory over the Penguins in the opening round last year.

Why Pittsburgh will win…

With all due respect to Montreal, Pittsburgh probably had the best overall season in the East this year. To finish second in the conference having lost their top center (and defending Hart Trophy winner) and top goalie for a large portion of the season is quite a feat. They enter the playoffs as the favorite of many to reach the conference final, if not the Stanley Cup final. They come into the playoffs comparatively healthy and playing well (11-4-1 in their last 15 games). They are catching a team with their best player on the bench with an injury. Even if both teams were completely healthy, Pittsburgh has more fire power (whatever the league goals/game rankings say) and a much better defense.

Why Ottawa will win…

Fleury has to demonstrate that what success he’s had so far doesn’t restrict him to being a regular season wonder who folds up in the playoffs. Until he has that playoff success, there will be doubts about his big game ability. Ottawa also has deeper playoff experience as one of last year’s Cup finalists; the fact that they are injured is a cause for concern, not panic. Their play is likely to reflect that.

There is perhaps no series among the eight in the first round where who wins Game One is more important. If Pittsburgh wins, especially if they hold Ottawa to a low goal total, it will add confidence to the talent they already bring to this matchup. On the other hand, if Ottawa wins, especially if Fleury has a difficult game, then perhaps the seeds of doubt will be planted in the heads of the younger team.

Pittsburgh in five.

1 comment:

Hooks Orpik said...

I agree, Game 1 is going to be crucial. If Pittsburgh roars out of the gates and hangs 4 or 5 goals on Ottawa in the first two periods, they just may go quietly into that good night.

But if Ottawa can resist the early fury of the crowd and pumped up Pens, they might very well prove to the world (and themselves!) that they could contest the series.