The Pittsburgh Penguins' defense of the Stanley Cup will officially begin on Wednesday night as the fourth seeded Pens battle the No. 5-seeded Ottawa Senators in the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Looking to become the first franchise to repeat as champions since the Detroit Red Wings, who pulled off the feat in 1997 and 1998, Pittsburgh will begin its trek with a formidable and familiar foe.
The Penguins and Senators first met in the postseason in 2007 when a playoff tested Ottawa club ousted a young and wide-eyed Pittsburgh squad in five games during the opening round.
The following year’s playoffs had the two teams meeting, yet again, in round one. This time around the Pens were the aggressor after gaining valuable experience from the previous season’s short, but invaluable playoff foray.
The Penguins swept the lackluster Senators who had morphed from Stanley Cup Finalists the previous season into a struggling squad who limped into the spring dance as an unimposing seventh seed.
This year’s third meeting in four years has all the makings of being, by far, the best and most compelling installment of Pens vs Sens.
Both clubs have had interesting and enigmatic regular season campaigns in 2009-2010.
At times, each franchise has looked as if they were staking their claim as legitimate contenders for hockey’s most coveted award. Other instances during the season showed two teams that looked mistake-prone, sluggish and wildly inconsistent.
I am banking on the playoffs to bring out the better of these two organizations which would set the stage for an entertaining, grueling and long series.
The following is my assessment of Pittsburgh’s first round opponent as well as the series' key matchup and prediction.
The Ottawa Senators forwards possess a strong mix of talent and grit. They are led by ageless captain Daniel Alfredsson, who has chalked up another solid season during the 2009-2010 campaign to add to his illustrious NHL resume (he also has a penchant for giving the Penguins problems).
Center Jason Spezza brings a wealth of talent to the ice and when he is on his game, can be a wizard in the offensive zone. Spezza, however, can be rattled and the Penguins will have to make sure they have somebody in his face every time he steps on the ice.
Mike Fisher has proved that he can be more than a solid shutdown center this season and sharp shooting left winger Milan Michalek is very dangerous from the blueline in.
Matt Cullen and Chris Kelly are talented penalty killers that can also contribute on the scoresheet and Jarkko Ruutu and Chris Neil will supply plenty of nastiness and annoyance for any opposition.
Up-and-coming centerman Peter Regin, the scrappy Nick Foligno, diminutive winger Ryan Shannon and fourth-liner Jesse Winchester round out the Sens top 12 healthy forwards.
Unfortunately, the Senators lost the services of talented (yet maddeningly inconsistent) right winger Alexei Kovalev, to a torn ACL in his left knee, for the remainder of the season.
Although Kovalev has had a relatively disappointing year, the immensely gifted winger can still dominate play from time to time. Ottawa will miss having the threat of his game breaking ability.
The top defensive pairing in Ottawa is one of the best shutdown duos that the NHL has to offer. Chris Phillips and linemate Anton Volchenkov will undoubtedly be put on the ice as much as possible against Sidney Crosby to try and neutralize the damage that the Pens crafty man in the middle can inflict.
The Senators will be without one of their top four blueliners and point man on the power play as Filip Kuba recently underwent back surgery to repair a herniated disc and will be out of service for a minimum of four weeks.
This will leave a void in the Ottawa defense that will have to be filled by trade deadline acquisition Andy Sutton and the offensively gifted rookie, Erik Karlsson.
The unspectacular, yet steady Chris Campoli and the big, rugged Matt Carkner will be the third pairing on the Senator’s defense.
Brian Lee should be Ottawa’s version of Jay Mckee (seventh defenseman) waiting in the wings if an injury should beset the Sens’ back end.
Since Ray Emery’s tumultuous departure from Canada’s capital, goaltending has been the biggest obstacle for the Senators.
They thought that they addressed their problem in net when they traded Antoine Vermette to Columbus at the 2009 deadline for a second round draft pick and oft-injured goaltender Pascal Leclaire.
Turns out the Senators had their solution between the pipes already in house.
Brian Elliott has stepped into the crease for Ottawa this year and delivered a very solid season. The former ninth round draft pick has played the consistent and steady brand of hockey that Leclaire has been unable to deliver.
This will be Elliott’s first foray into the pressure-packed NHL post season, but if he continues to play like he has throughout much of the regular season he will not be an easy shell for the Pittsburgh snipers to crack.
The special teams for these two clubs were eerily similar during the regular season.
Both squads iced penalty killing units that ranked in the top ten in the NHL respectively. However, both organizations’ power plays were sub par, especially considering some of the fire power they could ice.
The key penalty killers for the Senators are Matt Cullen and Chris Kelly up front, with Phillips and Volchenkov around the net.
Alfredsson, Fisher, Ruutu, Michalek, Sutton, and Carkner are also key contributors to Ottawa’s eighth ranked PK.
The Sens should be able to generate more than they have showed this season during a man advantage.
The losses of Kuba and Kovalev should hinder the team’s effectiveness on the power play, especially against a very solid Pittsburgh penalty kill (ninth overall).
Look for Alfredsson and Spezza to lead the charge on this unit with key contributions from forwards Fisher, Michalek and Cullen, as well as defensemen Karlsson and Campoli.
Sidney Crosby is really going to get to know Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov quite intimately if Senators coach Cory Clouston has anything to say about it.
The Sens' top defensive pairing will do its best to shut down Crosby and his linemates (whoever they may be) during this first round playoff matchup.
Sid has not had much personal success against the Senators and Phillips and Volchenkov are a big reason why.
The attention this pairing will give to the Crosby line should free up Evgeni Malkin and company to do some damage while the shutdown duo are catching a breather.
Crosby will have to scratch, claw, and battle for every inch of ice during this series with Phillips and Volchenkov watching his every move.
I expect this to be a very hard-fought series between two quality hockey teams. It would not be a shocker if either team advanced, but I would be surprised to see the series go less than six games.
If both the Senators ad Penguins bring their “A” games to the rink each night this one could go down to the wire.
I'll stick with the defending champs...Penguins in 7