Last spring, everyone was watching the young Penguins and teenage scoring champion Sidney Crosby as they ventured into the playoffs for the first time. It was a short but compelling lesson in playoff hockey administered by the Ottawa Senators, who dispatched the Pens in five before reaching their first Stanley Cup finals.
A year later, the Penguins came within two points of the Eastern Conference title and play a Senators team that limped into the postseason, decimated by injury and wracked by controversy.
The Penguins discovered they weren't a one-man team after losing Crosby for a month and a half with a high ankle sprain and seeing Evgeni Malkin shoulder the load to finish second in NHL scoring behind Alexander Ovechkin with 106 points. Gary Roberts, who returned to the lineup Sunday, and Darryl Sydor should continue to stabilize a young lineup with high expectations. The biggest change is former Senator Marian Hossa has joined the high-octane Penguins, coming over from Atlanta at the deadline.
Meanwhile, things have gone wrong down the stretch for an Ottawa team that jumped out of the gate with a 15-2-0 record. An inability to rein in netminder Ray Emery ultimately cost coach John Paddock his job. But even when GM Bryan Murray stepped back behind the bench, the team's woes continued. Worse, they lost captain Daniel Alfredsson and second-line center Mike Fisher for "weeks" in their second-to-last game of the season.
"Can anybody like anything about Ottawa? The offense is gone, goaltending is sub-standard, the room is a mess," national analyst and former NHL netminder Darren Eliot told ESPN.com. "They have all the earmarks of a team that can't wait for the season to be over."
1. Pressure, what pressure? We saw what happened to the Buffalo Sabres last season, when they suddenly moved from dark horse to Cup contender. They didn't like it too much and their game reflected that unease. We saw a bit of that at the start of the season with the Penguins, who eventually righted the ship despite injuries to Crosby, Roberts and top netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. Now, everyone expects them to blow past Ottawa and march to at least the conference finals in just their second playoff berth since 2001. On the other side, the Senators shouldn't be feeling much pressure (numb is a nice word) given that everyone and their dog assumes Ottawa is cooked. That might help the uptight Sens to play a little looser. Randy Robitaille, Antoine Vermette and Chris Neil will be playing out of character, logging power-play and penalty-killing time.
2. A Fleury of activity. There were more than a few questions about whether Fleury, the former No. 1 draft pick, was the right guy to lead the Penguins to the promised land after last season's early playoff exit. It might have taken a high ankle sprain to help keep the doubters at bay. When Fleury went down with the injury Dec. 6, his replacement, Ty Conklin, stabilized the team and helped keep them in contention for a division and conference title. When Fleury returned to action Feb. 28, he hit a groove almost immediately and left no question as to who "the man" is in the Penguins' net. In 14 appearances since his return, Fleury has not allowed more than three goals in a game and his .920 save percentage was tied for fifth in the league.
3. Speaking of goaltenders. We won't belabor the point, but the Senators' goaltending situation is half soap opera, half train wreck; entertaining from the outside, but not that pleasant from the inside. The bottom line is, with the injuries the Senators are dealing with, they need stellar goaltending more than ever if they're going to have a glimmer of hope vs. the Penguins. If Martin Gerber can put together some solid performances, the Sens would be more than happy. The fact they play like they're afraid every time the puck comes near Gerber suggests the Sens don't really think that's going to happen. So, what does Murray do? Does he, at some point, go back to Emery? Emery did, after all, backstop the Sens to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals. Either way, the prospects are not particularly appetizing.
4. Hello, Hoss. Little Joe is in the barn. OK, so Hossa probably isn't a big fan of "Bonanza." But he is a big fan of money, and if he can finally shake the "playoff choker" label that hangs, fair or not, around his neck, the talented forward stands to cash in big time this July as an unrestricted free agent. Hossa has 35 points in 55 postseason games, most of which was with the Senators. He is minus-9 over his playoff career. Last season, he was dreadful for the Thrashers, collecting one assist and was a minus-6 as Atlanta was swept by the New York Rangers. The assumption is Hossa will likely start the playoffs playing with Crosby. Hossa isn't the only one who will face pressure to perform in the playoffs. Ray Shero mortgaged a big chunk of the future (two position players, a top prospect and a first-round draft pick) to bring Hossa over. If the Pens flame out early, that won't look very good on the GM's résumé, will it?
5. Back end of the fire wagon. The perception is that while the Penguins can light it up at will, a la the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, their defense is not as tough. That's actually not the case. Yes, the Penguins ranked seventh in goals per game, but they also were a surprising 10th when it came to goals allowed. Sergei Gonchar not only finished second among NHL defensemen in point production, but he was also a plus-11. Darryl Sydor brought some veteran toughness (and two Stanley Cup rings) to the back end and Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik both have some snarl. Ryan Whitney is back where he belongs, on the blue line, after being sent to the front lines for some attitude readjustment for a couple of games.
• Sens' power play vs. Pens' penalty killing: The one area the Penguins might be vulnerable in is killing penalties. The team finished 23rd, while the Sens were 13th on power play. That power play was used to having Alfredsson directing traffic, but if the Sens are going to stay close, they're going to have to exploit this weakness by first drawing penalties and then making their makeshift power-play unit click.
• Senators: Vermette has four goals in his last two games, which is a good thing given he is now the team's No. 1 center. Mike Commodore, who came over with Cory Stillman from Carolina, is minus-9 since joining the Senators.
It's weird to think of the Senators as underdogs. But given their implosion, underdog hardly covers it. Doubt if the Penguins spend much time feeling sorry for their opponents. Pens in five.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.