For the fourth time since the 2004-05 lockout season, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators will clash in the postseason. In each series, the teams have been at different stages in their evolutions, with one team heavily favored over the other. The dynamics will be no different this time with Pittsburgh, the East's top seed, a heavy favorite for the third straight series against seventh-seeded Ottawa.
That said, this series might represent the most closely contested matchup between the teams, since the Senators are brimming with confidence after a five-game defeat of the Montreal Canadiens while the Penguins were fortunate to be rid of the eighth-seeded New York Islanders after a six-game series in which the Isles were the better team for much of the time.
Throw in the bad blood that exists between the teams relating to the Matt Cooke-Erik Karlsson incident and the return visit of much-loved defenseman Sergei Gonchar to Pittsburgh, and there is no shortage of storylines to fuel this familiar matchup.
1. Fleury or Vokoun?
Let's start with the biggest story for the Penguins, one that promises to have a major influence on the outcome of this series. Although goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury insisted in an interview before the playoffs that he had put last spring's playoff debacle against the Philadelphia Flyers behind him, it's clear that is easier said than done. After pitching a shutout in Game 1 against the Islanders, Fleury allowed 14 goals in the next three games and looked as out of whack as he did last spring when the Flyers beat the Pens in six games. Coach Dan Bylsma went with veteran backup Tomas Vokoun in Game 5, the first time Fleury did not start a Penguins playoff game since coming into the NHL, and Vokoun shut out the Islanders. The 36-year-old was solid again in Game 6. It's hard to imagine that Vokoun, who has stopped 66 of 69 shots on goal, won't start Game 1 against the Senators, but is he the long-term answer? The goaltending issue makes the series a toss-up, one top Eastern Conference executive told ESPN.com on Monday. "No matter how Bylsma handles it, the issue is a distraction," he said. Whether it's Vokoun or Fleury, the challenge will be to match Ottawa netminder Craig Anderson save for save. It won't be easy, as Anderson has been out of this world in allowing just four goals in the past three games -- all Senators victories.
The Senators will be looking to replicate what they did against Montreal and what the Islanders did in disrupting the Penguins in the first round, and that is to forecheck vigorously and hope to take advantage of turnovers in the Penguins' end or the neutral zone. There is a fine line to skate in playing an aggressive style given how potent the Penguins' power play was during the first round (not to mention during the regular season, when they ranked second in the league in power-play efficiency). The Pens were a league-best 7-for-21 with the man advantage in the first round, and that's what happens when you trot out Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang and Jarome Iginla and/or James Neal as your first-line power-play unit. Heading into action Monday, the Penguins boasted three of the top four playoff point producers. But the discipline element cuts both ways. The Senators were able to capitalize on an often-undisciplined Canadiens team to score six times on 25 man-advantage opportunities, the almost magical return of Karlsson from his Achilles injury adding a dynamic element to the Senators' power play.
3. Two immovable forces
Two key questions: Which team is best able to withstand a slew of penalties, and which is best suited to win a defensive battle? In spite of lots of defensive miscues, the Penguins were successful against a potent Islanders power play, denying the Isles on 18 of 20 attempts. Unlike their five-on-five play, the Penguins were disciplined and tenacious while killing off man-advantage attempts. If that continues, it will put additional pressure on the Senators to produce five-on-five, where in theory they will be at a disadvantage. If this series becomes a battle of special teams, you have to give a distinct edge to the Pens and their firepower. Beyond the penalty kill, you have to applaud the Senators' defensive posture throughout the regular season, when they were the stingiest team in the Eastern Conference and second in the NHL despite injuries to defensemen Karlsson and Jared Cowen. Both returned in the first round, and the Senators allowed just nine goals in five games. The Penguins enjoyed a little of the ridiculous and the sublime in the first round, shutting out the Islanders twice but allowing 17 goals in the other four games. The defensive edge goes to the Senators, unless the Penguins can regain the defensive form they showed during a stretch in the regular season, when they won 22 of 24 games.
4. The Kids Are Alright
Yes, The Who's old classic is a well-worn catchphrase come playoff time, but with the Sens it is imperative if they're going to continue their storybook run. With top center Jason Spezza still apparently a long way from returning, matching the Penguins' significant offensive power will fall again to the Senators' youngsters. Two rookies, Cory Conacher (who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for netminder Ben Bishop) and unheralded Jean-Gabriel Pageau (a hometown boy drafted 96th overall in 2011), paced the Senators in the first round with three goals apiece. Kyle Turris also had three goals for the Sens, but the rookies were impressive in producing in such a pressure-packed situation against the Canadiens. Both Pageau and Conacher delivered game winners. Can they keep up the pace? Sometimes rookies hit a wall in the postseason after running on adrenaline through the first round. If that happens, it will be bad news for the Senators. By comparison, the Penguins are a grizzled, playoff-hardened lot, and it will be interesting to see whether the disparity in experience comes to bear in the second round.
In spite of the Penguins' repeated assertions that they were taking the Islanders seriously, they spent a lot of time in the first round looking disengaged. There were multiple turnovers and instances of carelessness with the puck. Both Letang and Malkin were guilty of horrific turnovers that led to Islanders goals. Was this a case of a powerful team taking time to get into gear? Possibly. We have seen this in the past. The Chicago Blackhawks, for instance, did not get into a groove until late in their series against the Minnesota Wild. The Boston Bruins in 2011 were lucky to emerge from the first round against the Canadiens after they failed to score a single power-play goal and went on to win the Cup. One Eastern Conference scout told ESPN.com that he did not like the lack of maturity showed by the Pens in the first round, but they remain the best team, at least on paper. As for the Senators, the scout said they are playing with a boatload of confidence and a nothing-to-lose mentality as prohibitive underdogs. "Ottawa has some youth in their lineup who were part of a Calder Cup run two years ago, so playing into May/June is not unusual," the scout said. "Long series, rough and tough." If the Penguins continue to trend up in terms of focus and commitment to game plan, the odds become slimmer that the Senators can execute the upset.
• This one should be fun -- mercurial Sens owner Eugene Melnyk has already complained about the nature of some comments by Pens fans about his team -- but at the end of the day you have to figure the Penguins will tighten up defensively and their experience and offensive superiority will guide them to the Eastern Conference finals. Penguins in 6.