While the other Eastern Conference semifinal series features two teams (Rangers and Bruins) who haven’t met in the postseason since 1973, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators will collide in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the fourth time in seven years.
Despite the recent history, there are plenty of new characters on both sides since the Pens and Sens met in the first round of the 2010 postseason. On the Pittsburgh side, James Neal, Brandon Sutter and Paul Martin have never faced Ottawa in the playoffs, to say nothing of recent trade additions Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray, among others.
There’s been even more turnover on the Senators roster since 2010, with Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Phillips, Chris Neil and the injured Jason Spezza being the only recognizable key players from playoff series past. The infusion of young talent like Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson and forwards Kyle Turris, Mika Zibanejad and first-round hero Jean-Gabriel Pageau has helped Ottawa reboot after missing the 2011 postseason.
And oh yeah, old friend Sergei Gonchar is a valuable asset for the Senators defense at age 39. His presence provides a rich subplot for this series, more so than the tired rehashing of Matt Cooke’s inadvertent severing of Karlsson’s Achilles tendon in February.
However, most folks will be talking about goaltending as this series begins at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday from Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center. That’s for good reason, as Penguins coach Dan Bylsma confirmed that regular back-up Tomas Vokoun will get his third straight start in Game 1, opposing one of the NHL’s best netminders in Craig Anderson.
Speaking of storylines, Anderson and Vokoun played together from 2007-09 with the Florida Panthers, with Vokoun manning the No. 1 spot. Anderson, 31, moved on to Colorado and Ottawa from there, establishing himself as a viable crease option for a contending team. Vokoun, 36, hasn’t been a front-line starter since his Florida days, but has been thrust into the spotlight for one of the Stanley Cup favorites after Marc-Andre Fleury faltered in the first round.
Elite goaltending is critical to Ottawa’s success, since the Senators allowed the seventh-most shots in the regular season even though they surrendered the second-fewest goals. That trend continued in the Sens’ five-game ousting of Montreal, with Anderson facing 36 shots per contest and stopping 95 percent of them. Anderson posted the best save percentage (.941) in the league in the regular season, although a sprained ankle limited him to 24 appearances.
Those numbers can be intimidating, but if the Penguins can get 36 shots per game against Anderson, I like their chances to break through for their fair share of goals. With premier finishers Evgeni Malkin (11 points vs. New York), Sidney Crosby (nine) and Jarome Iginla (nine) in an early playoff groove and James Neal (21 regular-season goals) seemingly poised to break out, the Senators would be wise to try to tighten up.
Ottawa scored five goals per game against Montreal, far surpassing its regular-season average of 2.3, which was 27th out of 30 teams. If the Penguins can be a little more careful with the puck and Vokoun can come close to maintaining his level from Games 5 and 6 against the Islanders, the Senators will struggle to score.
I believe a looser, freer Penguins team will have no trouble netting at least three goals per game, which will be more than enough to dispatch the Senators. Just like my first-round prediction, I’m saying the Penguins take the series in five games.
(See full Penguins-Senators series schedule here.)