Even on nights where neither Evgeni Malkin nor Sidney Crosby could find the net until garbage time, the Ottawa Senators just cannot keep the high-powered Pittsburgh Penguins attack off the scoreboard.
Instead, it was James Neal who stepped up huge on Wednesday, as the Penguins defeated the Senators, 7-3, in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinals clash. Pittsburgh now has a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The 25-year-old Neal scored two goals, snapping a goalless streak that lasted over five playoff tilts. Neal's first- and third-period goals were sandwiched in between scores by Chris Kunitz and Jarome Iginla in the second period.
Pascal Dupuis, Crosby and Iginla's second goal in the third sent the score well beyond reach, each goal coming within the 8:08 and 9:53 mark of the period. The fusillade of goals led Tribune-Review reporter Josh Yohe to say the Penguins have reached a rarefied air usually reserved for future champions:
It was a performance that in retrospect will look every bit as dominant as Pittsburgh's Game 1 triumph. The Senators defense came absolutely unglued during the third period, leaving goalie Craig Anderson on an island to get pelted with shots.
For those watching, the barrage of shots hitting the back of the net came after a slow build—one that saw Ottawa look like the better team for much of the first two periods.
Perhaps spurred by the momentum of their double-overtime triumph in Game 4, the Senators offense came out on fire. Playing short-handed early after a Sergei Gonchar interference penalty, winger Milan Michalek took a pass from Daniel Alfredsson and blew past the Penguins defense, including Malkin, for a relatively easy goal for the Sens.
It took a mere 2:29 to send Scotiabank Place into a Game 7-esque tizzy. Senators radio announcer A.J. Jakubec noted that Michalek showed no signs of any lingering knee problems in jetting past the defense for the score.
Ottawa was able to keep the game at its pace for much of the first 20 minutes. Playing physically and fast, the Senators stifled the Penguins' vaunted offensive attack, forcing them into bad, contested shots that had little chance of finding the back of the net.
And then, as they always seem to do, the Penguins found a way to strike. Taking one faceoff, Neal floated a bit toward the center of the attacking zone and sent a rocket-launcher of a wrist shot past Anderson to knot the score at 1-1.
Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted just what good the previously struggling Neal was doing for the visitors:
Kyle Turris made sure Neal's celebration was short-lived—at least for the time being. The Senators star sent his fifth postseason goal rocketing into the Penguins net less than two minutes later, giving the Senators a 2-1 lead heading into the first intermission.
Unfortunately for the Sens, Turris' goal would be the last time they got a shot past Tomas Vokoun during meaningful play.
Pittsburgh's onslaught of the overwhelmed Senators defense took a little more than a minute into the second period to begin. Kunitz took a great pass from Dupuis and sent a wrister past Anderson for an easy breakaway goal. Iginla put the Pens ahead 3-2 less than a minute later on a rebound chance, making Anderson look like a "sieve," per ESPN's David Todd:
Things calmed down for the remainder of the second period, but the floodgates burst wide open in the game's final 20 minutes. The Penguins had scored six unanswered goals by midway through the third before a meaningless Alfredsson goal finalized the 7-3 score.
The teams will take a 24-hour reprieve before heading back to Pittsburgh for Game 5 on Friday. The Penguins can close out the best-of-seven series with a win at Consol Energy Center, where they won the series' first two contests.
NHL Network's Steve Mears was clear which way he thinks this series is headed:
Following such a dominant performance on Wednesday, it's not hard to see where Mears is coming from. The Penguins were the Eastern Conference's most dominant team all through the regular season, and they're starting to look the part again in these playoffs.