OTTAWA -- A crucial fourth game that began with an optimistic bang for the Ottawa Senators ended with an embarrassing whimper.
There was something more than a little symmetric about the Penguins’ emphatic 7-3 victory in Game 4: A playoff year that began with a whimper for sniper James Neal took a decidedly more upbeat turn in Game 4 on Wednesday night as he scored twice, including the game winner, and added an assist.
It is a turn of events that bodes ill not just for the seemingly overmatched Senators, but those teams that might yet encounter the Penguins this playoff year.
"He’s a guy who just needs one. And he’s been talking about that and felt that last game, but he came through for us and was a big factor -- his line and the power play -- in getting those two goals," coach Dan Bylsma said after the game.
Trying to force the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins into a best-of-three showdown by evening this Eastern Conference semifinal at two games apiece, the Senators got a dramatic early short-handed goal from Milan Michalek and took a 2-1 lead into the second period. But they were ultimately overwhelmed as the Penguins scored twice in 40 seconds early in the second and then chased starting netminder Craig Anderson for the second time in three games with four more in the first half of the third period.
By the end of the evening, with the Scotiabank Place faithful gamely chanting for the Senators, it was difficult to recall that this game started with such promise for the home side.
Although the place was fairly buzzing early on as the first period went along, it was Pittsburgh that carried the play, and the best line on the ice by a wide margin throughout the night was the trio of Neal, Jarome Iginla and Evgeni Malkin.
This was noteworthy because Bylsma has tried different ways to get his considerable offensive pieces in the right place this spring. And there has been much discussion and tinkering aimed at getting it just so.
Much of the focus has been on Iginla, given his stature in the game and the drama that accompanied his acquisition by the Penguins at the trade deadline. But, really, the key is Neal.
Slowed by a concussion late in the regular season, Neal played in Game 1 against the Islanders and then missed the next two. He had just one goal heading into Game 4 and looked out of sorts.
The fact that he had scored just three postseason goals in 12 games was no doubt adding to the angst.
But on Wednesday night, Neal was the dangerous offensive presence that saw him score 61 times during his last 120 regular-season games.
He actually looked like he’d scored early in the first period when a shot beat Anderson but caromed off the inside of the post. But with 5:04 left in the first period, Neal stepped into a hard wrist shot off the draw after Iginla had tied up center Zack Smith and beat Anderson to tie the game at 1-1.
"That first one we got was a pretty special shot by James. I don’t think very many guys can pull that one off to be able to get the first one by him," Bylsma said.
Although the Senators answered quickly with a Kyle Turris goal to regain a one-goal lead, the Penguins would begin their dismantling of the Senators with two goals in 40 seconds in the first two minutes of the second period.
Neal would earn an assist on the second of those goals, and later he would add what would turn out to be the winning goal on the power play, pounding home the carom of a Crosby shot from the opposite side of the net.
"I thought you saw it from Nealer right away. It was good that he got the goal right away, because I think he got that goal and you could kind of see his confidence grow exponentially right away and the rest of his game started getting a lot better," defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
"Not just his offensive game," Orpik added. "He looked like he had more jump and his defensive game was better and he was just going. I think it just shows you how big confidence is in this game."
How demoralizing was the Penguins’ onslaught?
Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson, who reached the 100-point plateau in playoff scoring with a power-play goal with the game out of reach in the third, was asked whether it was feasible to win three straight against this Pittsburgh team.
"Probably not," he answered with brutal candor. "With their depth and their power play right now, it doesn’t look too good.
"I’m just saying that I don’t think there’s much going for us. Maybe that’s the way we like it."
Senators coach Paul MacLean didn’t take any questions from reporters but simply held up a copy of the scoring summary.
"I think everything’s right here," he said.
"It’s 7-3. See you in Pittsburgh. We’re going to Pittsburgh and we’re coming to play. Have a good night," he said before exiting the press room.
In the short term, if the triumphant return of James Neal to form Game 4 has any traction, it means big trouble for an Ottawa Senators team now down to its last out in this series and its season.
"Felt good, obviously,” said Neal who is now enjoying his deepest playoff run as an NHLer. "I felt a little snake-bitten after having some good looks and not being able to finish. But our team’s been playing well, so as we’re winning; I’m not too worried about scoring. But it did feel good to chip in tonight.
"You’re always tough on yourself, you know what you’re capable of but, at the same time, if you start gripping the stick too tight and putting too much pressure on yourself, you’re just making it harder.
"You just want to enjoy this and have fun with it. It’s exciting playing in the playoffs and being in the second round and playing with a special group of guys. Saying that we found a way to get another win and going into our rink in a great spot."
But, big picture, if the Penguins do close out the Senators and the Boston Bruins do not have another epic playoff collapse having built a 3-0 series lead against the New York Rangers, it sets up an intriguing matchup in the Eastern Conference finals between two teams whose strength is a balanced attack.
If Neal and his linemates, who on this night combined for four goals and an assist, are rolling, that will present a mighty challenge for whomever they might face.
"Those guys have been playing good hockey and I think in the playoffs obviously everyone’s under the microscope, especially the guys that score a lot," Crosby said. "So to see them score, I mean, that’s great, but they’ve been doing a lot of good things for us."