Last, but not least, the fourth matchup in Eastern Conference side of the first round…
Pittsburgh (4) vs. Ottawa (5)
Game 1 (Oct 12/@OTT): Penguins 4 – Senators 1
Game 2 (Nov. 19/@OTT): Senators 6 – Penguins 2
Game 3 (Dec. 23/@PIT): Penguins 8 – Senators 2
Game 4 (Jan. 28/@PIT): Senators 4 – Penguins 1
Why the Penguins will win... Nothing beats experience. Add in the fact that the Penguins have more high-end skill, and that is a combination the Ottawa will find it difficult to overcome. Nowhere is the experience difference greater than in the most important position on the ice. Marc-Andre Fleury has 49 games of NHL playoff experience (31 wins), the last two years having gone to the Stanley Cup final. At the other end of the ice, Brian Elliott doesn’t have so much as a playoff minute of experience as a pro, either in the AHL or NHL. Then there is the matter of playing against a weakness. The Penguins’ difficulties on the power play have persisted over the past two years (17.2 percent, 19th in the league this year). Ottawa is similarly challenged on the power play (16.9 percent, ranked 21st). Those could very well cancel one another out. But there is a significant disparity between these teams at 5-on-5. The Penguins rank ninth in the league (1.07 5-on-5 ratio), while the Senators rank 26th (0.88). The Penguins are much more potent down the middle, where teams have to be strong to succeed. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have combined for 79 goals and 186 points this year (in 148 man-games), while Jason Spezza and Mike Fisher have combined for 48 goals and 110 points (in 139 man-games). But their advantage extends to Jordan Staal, a potential Selke candidate as best defensive forward who also chipped in 21 goals and 49 points. On the other side, the Senators will have to cope with the loss of Alex Kovalev. Before going down with a knee injury, Kovalev struggled (one goal and one assist in his previous 17 games), but he is one of, if not the best pure offensive talent still on that club.
Why the Senators will win... Pittsburgh is coming into this series not looking quite right. They stumbled to the finish, going 7-6-3 in their last 16 games, and it got worse as the end of the season came closer. In their last five games they allowed 18 goals, and in their last three allowed a whopping 25 power play opportunities (they allowed only three goals, but going that many minutes a man down saps energy and prevents flow). Then there is this strange statistic. In the last five games of the season, the Penguins scored 20 goals. Sidney Crosby had a hand in 15 of them (4-11-15). That Crosby assumed a larger offensive burden this year is true. He has done it because he has had to, a product of Malkin missing 15 games and weak play from the Penguin wingers. But that much offense going through one player is not a recipe for success in the playoffs, no matter how gifted the talent. And Ottawa has better defensemen to deploy than do the Penguins. Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov will likely be spending a lot of time with “87” in their sights. And the Senators might be catching Fleury at less than his best. Since shutting out Boston on March 18th, he is 4-3-2 in ten appearances, giving up at least three goals in seven of those appearances.
Players to watch… for the Senators, Milan Michalek. The winger started the season on fire with 15 goals in his first 25 games, but had only seven in his last 41 games. If Ottawa is going to win, they are going to have to get contributions from Michalek at the offensive end of the ice. For the Penguins, Evgeni Malkin. He is coming into the playoffs on a run with five goals in his last five games. He has to continue the pace to take the heat off Crosby. Having both players clicking poses uncommonly difficult matchup problems for opponents.
In the end... The Penguins have too much skill and too much talent where it matters to let this series slip away. They have been shaky enough (especially in goal) to allow this series to have some interesting moments. The Senators simply have too many unknowns, especially with respect to how goalie Brian Elliott is going to respond in his first NHL playoff action against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Pittsburgh in five