PITTSBURGH -- When it was done and the Pittsburgh Penguins had brushed aside the valiant but ultimately overmatched Ottawa Senators, one word came to mind to describe both Game 5 and the series: devastating.
In a game that built slowly to yet another impressive offensive crescendo, the Penguins once again flashed all of their considerable credentials in crushing the Senators 6-2 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals against either the Boston Bruins or New York Rangers.
"We're playing probably the best team in the league, and we're trying and trying, but we have to pay for every little mistake, and that's why they are where they are, and we're standing here," said Senators defenseman and defending Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson.
He said he can’t recall facing a team as dangerous.
"Probably not since back in the days when I played the video game," he said.
Ottawa coach Paul MacLean added that his team had learned from the Penguins about what it takes to get to the next level.
"They really had us on our heels for almost every game," MacLean said. "I think we really got a little bit of a lesson of what it really takes to continue to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs from a very good team."
"I hope they don’t bill us for the clinic," MacLean quipped. "They didn’t step off the pedal one time, and that’s what it takes."
After losing a lead late in regulation and then losing in double-overtime in Game 3, the Penguins simply washed over the defenseless Senators like a great wave. Just when one wondered if Ottawa could unnerve the favored Penguins with their Game 3 heroics, the Penguins outscored them 13-5 in the next (and final) two games.
"We got to our game a lot. I think that the depth we had showed. Different guys chipping in," said captain Sidney Crosby, who had one assist in Game 5.
"I think all the way through we didn’t have too many lulls where we lost a lot of momentum at any point. Giving up that late one in Game 3 was really something that could have changed things, [but] we bounced back in Game 4 and had a great effort and here tonight to finish it off. So, yeah, I think we gave ourselves a chance with our consistency."
If the Rangers and/or Bruins were watching Game 5, one couldn’t blame them for shuddering at the surgical precision the Penguins displayed, especially when presented an opportunity to move on to their first conference finals since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.
The Penguins got an early goal from fourth-line winger Brenden Morrow after a terrific job of forechecking by Matt Cooke and a heads-up pass from defenseman Mark Eaton -- hardly the three names that come to mind when you think "explosive."
Morrow returned to the Game 5 lineup after missing Game 4 and Eaton was a healthy scratch at the start of this series. Yet that is the hallmark of this team. Eight different players scored goals in Games 4 and 5.
As was the case in the first two games of the series, the Penguins scored early to force the Senators to play catch-up, once again lapping Ottawa with a relentless offensive attack combined with a diligent defense that did not allow the Senators any sustained pressure.
Throughout the five-game set, the Penguins outscored Ottawa 22-11, lest anyone suggest this was fire-wagon, trading-chances hockey. It wasn’t, which represents a marked difference between this series and the six-game series the Penguins played against the New York Islanders to start the playoffs.
"I think our desperation’s there [defensively]," Crosby said. "I think we find out pretty quickly that it’s not that enjoyable to play in your own end a lot. We had times, especially in the first round, where it took away from our offense because we were having to play in our own end. I think the more diligent we are, the more opportunities we’re going to get offensively, and that’s a lot more of the game we want to play."
Defensive specialist Cooke, who enjoyed a strong series against the Senators, said they must continue to think defense first.
"I think that the biggest thing for us is to make sure that we harness the way that we play defense, so that’s first, and we believe and feel that we’re going to get our opportunities offensively but we just need to take care of the other end first," Cooke said.
Although he is almost an afterthought, netminder Tomas Vokoun once again did exactly what was asked of him, stopping 29 of 31 shots to run his record to an impressive 6-1 since taking over for Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the opening round. Vokoun has an unbelievable .941 save percentage in seven games.
"I don’t look at it any different than before the first game," Vokoun said. "It always feels like it’s a tryout and, once you stumble, you never know what’s going to happen. Like I said, it doesn’t matter. I’m part of the team and we’re here to win, whoever’s in the net, as long as we [are] winning, that’s the most important thing."
The idea, then, is that the Penguins have the tools and the mindset to play any way an opponent wants. But the reality is that as this series went along, whether it’s borne out of defensive responsibility or not, the Penguins are operating at an offensive level unknown in recent playoff years. Friday’s game marked the ninth time in 11 games this spring they have scored at least four goals.
James Neal, who struggled through the first round and early into the second with just one goal, has now erupted for five goals and two assists in the past two games thanks to a Game 5 hat trick. The final goal, which closed out the scoring, was a thing of beauty as he turned Karlsson inside out with a toe-drag and then ripped a shot past Ottawa netminder Craig Anderson.
"So much is made [of] when guys don’t get points, but we depend on 20 guys in this room and there’s going to be times when they might not get on the score sheet and we win games, and it’s the playoffs, and that’s what’s most important," Cooke said.
"We know that James Neal’s going to score goals. No one in this room worried about it. I think the fact that he’s done what he did the last two games speaks to that."
This is uncharted territory for Neal. Since Dallas traded him to Pittsburgh in a 2011 deadline deal, the Penguins have been knocked out in the first round by Tampa and then Philadelphia.
"Just through the last couple of years of going out in the first round, you gain experience from that," Neal said. "You know what happens, you know how fast things can change. I think you saw a desperate team but a confident team as well. It was fun to play tonight; we knew we had a job to do and we did it and that’s the satisfying part.
"Any time you win, it’s fun and it’s exciting. We got a great group of guys in this locker room that come to the rink every day with a smile on their face and enjoyed it. It’s a great atmosphere to be around and we have a lot of fun with it and it shows on the ice how close everybody is and how exciting it is to play with the Penguins. It’s just an awesome experience."