Pens move to conference championship
PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins expected desperation.
Instead, the listless Ottawa Senators offered little more than resignation.
Swarming the Senators from the opening faceoff, Pittsburgh roared to a 6-2 victory Friday night in Game 5 of the Eastern conference semifinals to take the best-of-seven series 4-1.
James Neal picked up his first postseason hat trick as the Penguins capped a five-game onslaught against one of the NHL’s best defensive teams to stroll into the conference finals. Pittsburgh scored 22 goals in the series while ending Ottawa’s season for the third time in five years.
“We gave them the respect they deserved and we came out and I think we surprised ourselves,” Neal said. “We played with a lot of speed and got it behind them and got to the net.”
And more importantly, into the net.
Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin and Brenden Morrow also scored, and Tomas Vokoun made 29 saves to help give top-seeded Pittsburgh a few days of rest before facing Boston or the New York Rangers in the conference finals.
The Penguins will take the time off, but considering the way they’re rolling at the moment they wouldn’t mind if the next round started sooner rather than later.
“We got to our game a lot,” Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. “The depth we showed, different guys chipping in. The whole way through we didn’t have many lulls where we lost momentum at any point.”
Certainly not against the overmatched Senators. Milan Michalek and Kyle Turris scored for Ottawa and Craig Anderson stopped 27 shots, but the Senators simply couldn’t keep up.
“I hope [the Penguins] don’t bill us for the clinic,” Ottawa coach Paul MacLean said. “But they really showed the step you have to take to continue to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.”
The Penguins anticipated taking Ottawa’s best shot as the Senators tried to extend their season for at least another 48 hours. It never happened. Not even close.
Outskated, outshot and outworked from the opening faceoff, the Senators put up little resistance as Pittsburgh moved on to the conference finals for the first time since 2009, when the franchise won its third Stanley Cup.
Two more rounds remain, ones that figure to pose a stiffer test than the one the Senators provided. Ottawa destroyed Montreal in the opening round but could never find its footing against Pittsburgh. The series lasted 327 minutes. The Senators led for all of 17.
“We gave them too many freebie chances and you’re not going to beat a team like that when they get as many chances as they had,” Ottawa forward Jason Spezza said.
The series win was the seventh for the Penguins under coach Dan Bylsma but the first deciding victory to come on home ice. Pittsburgh had gone 0-6 at home in potential series enders, something Bylsma’s players insisted was an anomaly.
Pittsburgh made sure a trip to Canada for Game 6 wouldn’t be necessary, turning Ottawa forward Daniel Alfredsson into a prophet of sorts. The NHL’s longest-tenured captain said the Senators “probably” couldn’t rally to win the series after a 7-3 home loss in Game 4 on Wednesday night.
Alfredsson clarified his remarks Thursday, insisting his team still had a chance.
It didn’t take long for slim to turn into none, leaving the free agent to be pondering a future that could lead out of Ottawa or out of hockey altogether.
“All I can say is it’s been a great year in terms of the group we’ve had, the adversity we’ve faced,” Alfredsson said. “We became a tight group and stuck together throughout.”
Maybe, but the Senators hardly looked together while slogging through the game’s first 10 minutes, long enough for Morrow to pay immediate dividends in his return to the lineup.
The veteran forward was scratched from Game 4 in favor of rookie Beau Bennett but appeared re-energized after the night off. He scored his second goal of the playoffs 6:25 into the first period while scoring the kind of goal the Penguins expected out of him when they acquired the 34-year-old from Dallas just before the trade deadline.
Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke beat a Senator to a loose puck along the halfboards then zipped a cross-ice pass to defenseman Mark Eaton. Morrow skated to the net and lifted his stick up to draw Eaton’s attention. Eaton patiently waited for Morrow to get in front of the crease before throwing a puck toward the net that deflected off Morrow’s skate and into the net.
The goal was held up on review and the Senators found themselves in familiar position: trailing.
Neal scored for the third time in two games when he poked in an idle rebound on the power play to put Pittsburgh up 2-0 7:38 into the second period. Letang followed with a wrist shot over Anderson’s glove at the end of a 3-on-2 break to make it 3-0.
Michalek briefly made it competitive with a beautiful deke around Vokoun to pull the Senators to 3-1 with 3:48 left in the second but Malkin scored his fourth goal of the playoffs on a breakaway just before the intermission to restore the three-goal lead.
Ottawa hadn’t overcome a deficit bigger than one goal in the postseason and Neal ensured there would be no late meltdown. A pair of sizzling wrist shots in the third period gave him his first career playoff hat trick and sent the Penguins surging into hockey’s final four.
As fabulously as Pittsburgh played over the final five periods against the Senators, Neal believes his team’s best hockey lay ahead.
“It’s something we talked about from Day 1 and each day and each game and you definitely saw it throughout this series,” he said. “From Game 1 we liked the way we were playing and we weren’t down and it showed.”
Notes: Pittsburgh went 1 for 3 on the power play and improved to 6-0 when it outscores an opponent on special teams in the postseason. … Ottawa fell to 0-6 in franchise history when it falls behind 3-1 in a series.