The Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators meet in the first round of the playoffs for the third time in four seasons and the past two series were quickly over.
In 2007, the Senators were the superior team, eliminating Pittsburgh in five games. The Senators advanced to the Cup Finals in 2007, losing the Anaheim Ducks in 5 games.
In 2008, the roles were reversed as Pittsburgh was the dominant team, sweeping Ottawa in four games. Pittsburgh advanced to the Cup Finals, losing to the Detroit Red Wings in 6 games.
Is another 4 or 5 game series in the works?
The four games this season between the Senators and Penguins were split 2-2, with Pittsburgh winning 4-1 and 8-2, while the Senators won 6-2 and 4-1.
Ottawa matches up well against Pittsburgh in some areas and this series has the look of being at least a six game series.
The Senators head into the playoffs on a 7-2-1 run.
1. Chris Phillips – Anton Volchenkov vs Sidney Crosby: Due to Pittsburgh depth down the middle, the Penguins proved to be a nightmare to matchup against during their run through the Eastern Conference last post-season. Philadelphia, Washington and Carolina all lacked a No. 1 pairing and a strong No. 2 pairing to shut down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Ottawa poses a potential matchup problem in their ability to match a shutdown pairing in Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov against Crosby’s unit. It’s going to be the most intriguing matchup to watch in the series.
Behind the Phillips-Volchenkov pairing, Andy Sutton will likely draw the assignment against Evgeni Malkin. However, the Senators will be without top-four defenseman Filip Kuba which will be a blow to their depth on the blueline.
2. Production from Penguins wingers: What kind of production the Penguins get from their wingers is a mystery heading into the playoffs. Whether the Penguins can get the same kind of production they got from Ruslan Fedotenko, Max Talbot Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz last post-season is questionable at best.
Fedotenko, Talbot and Guerin combined for 22 goals last post-season, playing key roles in the Penguins success. Guerin is a year older, and Fedotenko and Talbot are having awful seasons, unlike last season when both went into the playoffs playing well.
Chris Kunitz heads into the playoffs with a nagging shoulder injury and while Pascal Dupuis is having a career season, he’s not a typical top-6 forward and could easily go scoreless for an entire series.
Alexei Ponikarovsky is the one major mystery. He has two goals in 16 games with the Penguins and has not been able to develop any kind of chemistry with Evgeni Malkin.
Dan Bylsma has talked adamantly about the Penguins three-center model in the playoffs but Bylsma may be forced to play Crosby and Malkin together in more situations than he would like.
3. Injuries to derail Senators? While the Penguins don’t have any long-term injury concerns, Ottawa comes into Game 1 not at full strength. Alexei Kovalev, who suffered a torn MCL last week and is done for the season, while defenseman Filip Kuba will be sidelined for at least 3 more weeks.
Milan Michalek, the Senators second line center returned for the final two regular season games after missing 9 games due to a knee injury.
4. Brian Elliott (29-18, 2.57 GAA) versus Marc Andre Fleury (37-21, 2.65 GAA): Brian Elliott has no playoff experience and enters his first playoff series against Sidney Crosby and the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Winning the Senators starting goalie job due Pascal Leclaire under-achieving, Elliott has posted strong numbers in his first season as a starter and has put together winning streaks of six and nine games this season. He’s clearly capable of winning a game or two for the Senators but how he handles the playoff atmosphere on the road to open up the series remains to be seen.
Pittsburgh has the edge in goal but Fleury is not playing at the top of his game heading into the playoffs.
Fleury is a better playoff performer (.916) than career regular-season performer (.907), recording 30 playoff wins in his last two post-seasons.
5. Player to watch – Defenseman Erik Karlsson: Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin and Ottawa’s Jason Speeza are among the X-factors in the series but a player to watch in the series is 19 year old defenseman Erik Karlsson, the Senators 2008 1st round pick.
With Filip Kuba missing from action, Karlsson will play a top-4 role against Pittsburgh.
Karlsson’s a promising player who at times plays like one of the Senators top-4 defensemen but struggles with consistency in the defensive zone like most 19 year old defenseman in the NHL.
Has difficulties containing big physical forwards down low.
Karlsson has 5 goals and 21 assists on the season and is a plus-7 in his past 10 games. He’s a darkhorse in the series who will see plenty of centers Jordan Staal or Evgeni Malkin.