Saturday, May 25, 2013

Senators can hold their heads high

May 24, 2013

Penguins oust Sens in five, reach Eastern finals
Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) shakes hands with Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson (41) after Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in their NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs series on Friday, May 24, 2013 in Pittsburgh. The Penguins won the game 6-2 and won the series 4-1 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH — While marathoners in Ottawa are limbering up for their long Sunday ramble, the Senators’ run has come to an end.

The Pittsburgh Penguins closed out the semifinal series four games to one, with a thunderous 6-2 victory in Game 5. The heads of Senators players were held high at the finish line, after losing to a Penguins team armed and loaded for a long and prosperous playoff life.

For the honour of representing the east in the Stanley Cup final, the Penguins will face the winner of the Boston Bruins-New York Rangers series in the Eastern Conference final beginning next week.

The Senators, meanwhile, can reflect on a season without shame, a season in which they fought off injuries to earn a playoff berth and then erased the Montreal Canadiens in a five-game first round series.

The Penguins were another matter. It was like joining a higher league. While Ottawa was able to steal a game on home ice, in double-overtime, the Senators didn’t get much of a sniff otherwise as the Pens came after Senators goaltender Craig Anderson in waves of black jerseys.

Backup goalie Tomas Vokoun was supposedly the weak link of the Penguins, but the Senators weren’t able to consistently expose Vokoun’s propensity for yielding rebounds. Now that the series is over, who is to argue with the veteran Czech’s spectacular stats? He came into the game with a 15-2 record in his previous 17 starts, and held firm again Friday.

Beforehand, Vokoun said the Penguins didn’t necessarily carry any mental edge into Game 5 just because they had whacked Ottawa 7-3 in Game 4.

“Mental edge is more about how you execute that game … if you are able to push the things you want to do on them or they are pushing things they want to do on us,” Vokoun said. “That’s the difference between winning and losing the game.”

Over the five games, the Penguins more consistently imposed their will, controlled the play on a Senators team that was forced to chase.

On the morning of Game 5, James Neal told me that the Penguins hoped to break some of that renowned Senators spirit as quickly as possible.

“You definitely want to put doubt in their mind right away, that’s a big part of winning a fourth game,” Neal said. “If you come out and put them behind early, make them feel the pressure and try to break them, it can only help you.”

A Neal goal, his first of three, helped do that very thing, on a power play early in the second period.
Anderson lost sight of the puck, and had actually stepped on it before Neal drove the puck across the line.

Little more than five minutes later Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang cut across the middle of the ice and drifted a wrist shot over Anderson’s glove for a 3-0 Pittsburgh lead. Now the pursuit was a Pittsburgh bridge too far.

If the Senators were to have any chance of coming back, they would need to score on a power play late in the second period. They did score, one second after the penalty expired, but the Michalek goal lost meaning when a Neal pass sent Evgeni Malkin in on a breakaway a couple of minutes later.

The big Russian centre made no mistake, and with 30 seconds remaining in period two, there wasn’t a fan in the new Igloo that had any doubt the home team’s 4-1 lead into the third period would stand up.
For the occasion — a potential clinching game — Senators head coach Paul MacLean reunited the Jason Spezza-Daniel Alfredsson-Milan Michalek line for the first time in the series.

MacLean hoped the veteran trio might help his team weather early fire from the Penguins as well as provide what he called a “calming effect on the rest of the group.”

While there was no explosive push from the Penguins in the first minutes, neither did the Spezza line have any early opportunities, and it was winger Brenden Morrow who provided the Penguins the lead they wanted, although it required league approval first. Morrow got his stick on a Mark Eaton pass, but the puck hit Morrow’s skate before sliding past Anderson and the play was reviewed.

In the dying seconds of the period, the Spezza line did sustain deep pressure and got a scoring chance that dribbled wide of Vokoun, off Spezza’s stick.

The Senators could have used the magic of a previous Game 5 that went deep into the good night here before Matt Carkner, of all goal scorers, banked in a point shot in triple overtime to force a Game 6 back in Ottawa. That was in the spring of 2010, in old Mellon Arena.

The Senators carried a 3-0 in Game 6, but the Penguins scored four straight goals and won in overtime on a Pascal Dupuis shot that beat Pascal Leclaire.

Old news. This Penguins team, in what Letang had phrased a “must win” wasn’t interested in heading to Ottawa one more time.

The Penguins had been 0-6 in their past six opportunities to close out a playoff series on home ice. Make it 1-6 in their past seven.

This was Ottawa’s third playoff series loss to the Penguins since 2008. The Senators lone series victory over Pittsburgh came in 2007, a five-game set when Sidney Crosby was participating in his first NHL playoffs.

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