No matter what the outcome of the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins is, this season will be deemed a success for the Ottawa Senators.
Entering the season, not many pundits predicted the youthful Senators to be in the NHL Playoffs, let alone Round 2. Add in the fact that the Senators lost Jason Spezza for 43 games, Erik Karlsson for 31 games, Milan Michalek for 25 games, and netminder Craig Anderson for 24 games, and the odds of Ottawa making the post-season would seem miniscule. Toss in 14 rookies spending time with the Senators this season, and you might begin to laugh at the plausibility of Ottawa contending for the Cup.
Yet, here they are, thanks to stellar coaching by Paul MacLean. MacLean is the clear-cut favorite for coach of the year, in my opinion. The team was entering Game 4 against the Penguins fresh off of an exhilarating 2-1 double overtime victory in Game 3.
A win at home in tonight’s game would have had the Pens and their stars reeling. Ottawa was able to jump out to a 2-1 lead in the game, but collapsed from there, surrendering 6 unanswered goals. The style in which they lost was uncharacteristic for the young Sens - coming into the game, they were outscoring opponents 16-1 in the 3rd period and overtimes in these playoffs. Ottawa gave up 4 goals in the 3rd period, including a shorthanded goal by Pascal Dupuis that was a dagger, and made the score 5-2.
Falling behind in the series 3-1, and heading to Pittsburgh for Game 5, may have already sealed the fate of the season for Ottawa. Regardless, the team is gaining invaluable experience for their bright future, and has no reason to sulk.
On the other side of the coin, we have the Penguins. Anything less than winning a Stanley Cup this year, is failure.
The team is front loaded with stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni “no one can pronounce my first name” Malkin, James Neal, and Kris Letang. Pittsburgh is also enjoying career performances from Chris Kunitz and Dupuis. If that was not enough, the team went out and nabbed Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, Douglas Murray, and Jussi Jokinen at the trade deadline, to bolster an already excelling lineup.
Too bad that this is real hockey, and not a video game. The team did not easily extinguish the New York Islanders in Round One, and had to earn their way to Round 2. The Islanders, much like the Senators, were not expected to be playoff contenders, and gave the Pens a decent run for their money. The Islanders were able to knock starting goaltender M-A Fleury off his podium, and backup Thomas Vokoun has been in the reigns ever since.
Are the Penguins as good as they look on paper? Are they as good as tonight’s 7-3 score would indicate? I am not so quick to say yes.
Do they have the leadership to win? Yes. Do they have the talent and skills to win? Of course. Do they have the experience to win playoff games? No question. The real question to be answered is: Can this roster defeat battle-hardened teams, in the face of the pressure of being expected to win the Cup?
Winning games against young, inexperienced teams like the 8th seeded Islanders and 7th seeded Senators does not answer that question. Nor does the fact that, until tonight, they had to work hard for their victories. I feel that tonight’s game was closer than the score indicates. The Senators hit the post twice in the second period; either of those goes in, and the score is tied for Ottawa at home, and the team gets rejuvenated. If Ottawa capitalized on their 3rd period power-play, instead of surrendering a shortie, and it might have been a different game.
Alas, the chips fell where they did, and the Penguins just need one more victory to move on to the Conference Finals, likely to be against the Boston Bruins. Can Pittsburgh best actual playoff-experienced teams like Boston, or any of the remaining Western Conference teams in the Sharks, Kings, Red Wings, or Blackhawks?
Looks like we may find out soon enough.