25-11-1, 51 pts. 2nd Atlantic, 4th Eastern Conference. 7-2-1 L10
18-4-4, 40 pts. 3rd Northeast, 7th Eastern Conference, 5-5 L10
Before there were the Detroit Red Wings, there were the Ottawa Senators.
Ottawa proved to be the first real rival of the Crosby-Malkin-Fleury era. They bounced the Penguins in five in the 2007 Conference Quarterfinals. Pittsburgh swept 7th-seeded Ottawa from the same series the next season.
Ottawa has fallen sharply from their 2007 Cup Finals appearance. However, aside from the 07 Quarterfinals round, they have been a tough team for the Penguins to dispatch.
The teams have split the season series so far. Both games were played in Ottawa. The Penguins welcome the Senators and their lowly 5-9-1 road record to the Mellon Arena Wednesday.
The Penguins should have plenty of fuel heading into tonight’s game. The Devils battered Fleury to the tune of four goals and Martin Brodeur notched his NHL-best 104th career shutout Monday. No one wants to bear the distinction of being the team who surrenders the record-breaker, as the Pens once again do (Terry Sawchuck got his 103rd shutout against Pittsburgh).
If that’s not enough to get them jazzed up for Wednesday’s match, memories of the last game vs. Ottawa ought to be. In the last meeting of the two teams Nov. 19, the Senators chased Fleury en route to a 6-2 victory at ScotiaBank Place.
The Penguins have shown good resilience this year, and ought to be able to shake off the 4-0 laugher to the Devils, who are showing a mighty resemblance to last season’s Boston Bruins, on Monday.
Ottawa is 5-5 in their last 10 games and are dealing with injuries to some key players.
The Senators will be without All-Star scorer Jason Spezza (torn MCL) for the next few weeks. Spezza is the biggest goal scoring threat the Senators have, with Dany Heatley playing hockey in the Shark Tank. Wingers Shean Donovan (lower-body) and Nick Foligno (knee) are also on the shelf for tonight’s game.
Rugged winger Chris Neil and goaltender Pascal Leclaire may return from extended absences tonight. Neil (14 games missed) brings a tough presence for the Senators.
More important is how the Penguins handle Leclaire. Leclaire made 25 saves in November’s 6-2 stomping, but has missed 16 straight with a broken cheekbone. Should he make his return tonight, the Pens need to come out of the gate firing and get into his head before he can shake the rust. If Leclaire can’t go, the Pens will face backup Brian Elliott.
For the Penguins, defenseman Mark Eaton remains out with a knee injury. Martin Skoula will step in as the Penguins 6th defenseman.
Jordan Staal is also expected to play. He received a puck to the nose in the second period of Monday’s loss but returned for the third with a full-cage mask and a collection of stitches. Staal participated in the morning skate.
Milan Michalek, acquired from the Sharks this offseason as part of the Heatley deal, will be a scorer to watch tonight. Michalek leads Ottawa with 16 goals.
Even without winger Spezza, Captain Daniel Alfredsson is always a thorn in the side of the Penguins. Alfredsson has been a perennial points leader for the Senators in his 13 seasons with them and again leads the team with 31 pts (9G, 22A). Shutting down Alfredsson will go a long way toward keeping Ottawa off the scoresheet.
Ottawa’s key to victory lies in shutting down the Penguins’ forwards with defensemen Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov. They’ll need to play 60 minute game if they are going to beat them at all. Pittsburgh has been stellar during bonus hockey, and Fleury has been a maestro during shootouts.
One Penguin who is struggling is defenseman Alex Goligoski. Goligoski has struggled in the defensive zone lately and has been shut down offensively since returning from injury.
His plus-minus still sits at a healthy +11, but his play has been nowhere near the level it was prior to his injury. A few points, perhaps on the power play, will help put those concerns to bed.
Speaking of power play, the Penguins went 0-fer on the man advantage Monday, the second game in a row without a power play goal. They now convert at a 13.8 percent clip, good for 30th place – dead last – in the NHL.
What’s going on is that the Penguins appear to be playing bubble hockey when on the power play; capable of moving back and forth and spinning in little circles, and virtually nothing else. Lateral movement has yet to find a place with the 30th-ranked power play, as does the fever-pitched skating game the Penguins execute so masterfully during even-strength play.
Furthermore, Crosby, Malkin and Gonchar appear to play the entire two minutes every time out, which has led to more than one breakout rush by a rested returning player. The Penguins need a fundamental change in how they run the power play if it is going to start converting.
By skating so little, the Penguins have a hard time finding lanes to the net, even from the point. Placing a Matt Cooke on the top of the crease isn’t going to change the fortunes of the power play when shots aren’t even getting as far as the blue paint.
Ottawa sports a 10th-ranked penalty kill. It took the 26th-ranked PK of the lowly Flyers to give the Penguins power play some hope before being shut down by Buffalo (6th) and New Jersey (13th). Pittsburgh needs to start converting on special teams sooner rather than later.
The Penguins would also do well to land the first goal tonight. They are 14-2 when scoring first, 11-9-1 when trailing first. That’s 21 games in which the Penguins fail to jump on opponents early. They have been exceptional when it comes to scoring timely goals. An early opening goal might tip off a rally against a middling Ottawa team tonight.
–Written by James Conley–