What a difference a year makes.
Actually, to be more specific, what a difference five months make.
Going into the 2007-'08 regular season, the Senators were riding high, fresh off a Stanley Cup final appearance and primed and ready to prove that playoff hangover was just a myth. And after 17 games and a 15-2 start, the best ever by any team, all was well in Hockey Country.
Then, the walls started falling down.
Goaltenders were inconsistent both in the net and off the ice. The losses started piling up and the players had no answer. The coach got fired, and a team that was (however unfairly) compared to the 1975-'76 Montreal Canadiens juggernaut needed a Carolina loss in their last game to even get back into the playoffs.
Losing six of your last eight games, and thanks to Toronto's Mark Bell, also losing two of your top five forwards for an indeterminate time, definitely is not the way you want to enter the post-season.
That being said, the slate is clean, and everyone is starting on even ground. The question is—do the Senators have enough to defeat the upstart Penguins?
Those looking for positives can look at the 3-0-1 record they posted against the Penguins this season and the 4-1 playoff trouncing they subjected Sid the Kid and his team to one year ago.
It can be done, but three vital things must happen, and they are my Senators' Keys to Victory:
1. Play on the edge, not over it: The Senators must finish all checks, especially on the fore check against the suspect Pittsburgh defensive corps. Forcing turnovers in the Pittsburgh zone and capitalizing on them is paramount, and they must score one "ugly" goal per game. They must be aggressive with the skilled Penguin forwards but cannot cross the line and take penalties, or they will get eaten alive by the Pittsburgh power-play.
2. Score the first goal: Without Alfredsson and Fisher, the offensive firepower will not be there to mount a comeback. The Senators need a quick start, which might put some doubt in the players' minds as to the ability of Marc-Andre Fleury to excel when the heat is turned up.
3. Martin Gerber must make key saves: He doesn't need to shut out the Penguins, and let's face it, they are going to score goals. But the saves at the key times in the games (late in periods, down by one goal) could be the boost the Sens and give them the confidence to play at the level they need to.
Can the Senators win the series? Of course they can. The core of the team is still intact from last year, and if they can hold out and get any or all of Alfredsson, Fisher, or Kelly back for game three or four, anything can happen.
Spezza and Heatley are still dynamic and could carry a team over the course of a series. Cory Stillman is a savvy veteran who has a pair of Cup rings and the respect of the players. He'll have a voice in the room and is a key to the power play.
Will the Senators win the series? Even the most die-hard Senators fan has to be disillusioned with performance of the club in the last 50 games. They have not shown the form lately that suggests they can win a game, let alone a series. There are too many "what-ifs" and too many things that must fall into place for the Senators to win the series.
The list above are all keys to victory, but none have been demonstrated abilities on a consistent basis for an inconsistent club.
PENGUINS IN FIVE