As is sat in my office today, surrounded by people who follow hockey for a living, I was mocked for suggesting that the Ottawa Senators have a chance at knocking off the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Forget insinuating the Senators might actually beat the defending champs, the mere mention that they could make a series of it was laughable to many. So is this series over before it begins? On the contrary; I not only believe the Senators will give the Penguins a run for their money, they might wipe out their entire bank account.
The Penguins and Senators skated to a 2-2 draw in their season series. Both teams won games by several goals. While the series will likely be close, do not be surprised if the games are not.
In goal, Marc-Andre Fleury squares off against Brian Elliott. Fleury struggled this season finishing out of the top 30 in save percentage. Fleury’s 2.65 goals against average put him 24th in the league. Elliott ranked better in both categories. Had Elliott started all 4 games against the Penguins this season, chances are Ottawa would have done better than a split. The Senators won the only game the 24-year old started against the Pens, with Elliott stopping 30 of 31 shots fired at him.
Up front, the Senators will have to contend with arguably the best hockey player on the planet in Sidney Crosby. The Penguins captain scored 51 goals this season, none of which came against the Senators. In 4 games against Ottawa, Crosby registered 0 goals, 3 assists and was a minus 4. As Cory Clouston said earlier today, you can’t stop Crosby, all you can do is hope to contain him. Not many defence pairings have done a better job of that over the years than Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips. The Sens shutdown pair has held Crosby to 7 goals in 26 games since ‘the kid’ entered the league.
The other half of Pittsburgh’s two-headed monster is Evgeni Malkin. Unlike Crosby, Malkin has scored, seemingly at will against the Senators this season; 5 goals in 4 games to be exact. Geno is fresh off a foot injury and has managed 4 goals in his last 4 games. However, let’s not be so quick to forget what happened the last time Malkin was less that 100 percent in the post-season. The big Russian pulled a disappearing act during the late rounds of the 2008 playoffs, especially the final which Pittsburgh lost to Detroit. The Pens revealed what many suspected after the final, that Malkin was not healthy during the final games of the playoffs.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the matter of how each team finished the regular season. Ottawa enters the post-season as the hottest playoff team in the Eastern Conference, closing out the season at 7-2-1. The Penguins won just 7 of their last 16 games entering hockey’s second season.
Most hockey fans I have talked to, outside of Ottawa, believe the Sens season will be over in 5 games or less. The media experts I have spoken to concede that Ottawa has the potential to make it a series, perhaps 6 or 7 games in length, but nothing more. I am going to go one step further. It is my contention that the Ottawa Senators will knock the Pittsburgh Penguins out of the 2010 playoffs based on the information provided above. I know that this goes against what many believe, however, as is often the case when you take the time to peel back the layers, facts tend to get in the way of popular opinion.