There were a lot of surprises in the first round of the NHL playoffs this year, but not when it came to these two teams. The Penguins goaltending was clearly a front and center topic heading into round one and it became an even bigger story when Vokoun supplanted Fleury for the number one spot. I suspected the Islanders could snatch a couple victories from them and they almost did more than that. Meanwhile, the Senators used their 2012 playoff experience wisely and quickly took care of a Montreal team that wasn't quite ready for prime-time. So what happens when these two square off tonight in Pittsburgh?
As always, what happens between the pipes is a large determining factor in the outcome of a series. Vokoun has already been announced as the game one starter, but what should we make of this? Does Vokoun have the ability to steal games the way Anderson can? I'm going to go ahead and say, no. His style does provide more stability than Fleury does, but he's not the big game kind of guy who is going to stand on his head and win the MVP award. The real question will be will he have to? The Senators do not pose the same offensive threats that the Islanders had, but the equalizing factor here is Anderson. If Anderson continues to play at the same level he did all season, then there could be a lot of pressure on Vokoun to be at his best. A soft goal here and there is not going to cut it if the Sens keep these games close.
There isn't much need to talk much about the Pens offense. We all know they possess the scariest group of forwards in the league. The thing that caught my eye on round one was how bad their checking line played vs the Islanders. Cooke, Sutter, and Morrow were supposed to be the shutdown line that balanced things out. They did provide a healthy physical side that is much needed in the playoffs, but they were severely outmatched when things involved the puck. They all finished with negative corsi scores and didn't do much to slow down pucks being driven at their net.
Having said that, the bigger concern for the Sens will be whether or not their score by committee approach will work against an all-star cast. Alfredsson, Turris, and Michalek are good weapons against a normal team, but can they provide offense when it's needed? Can the dynamo kids Zibanejad, Silfverberg, and Conacher keep up their dazzling play? Will the role players like Condra, Smith, Pageau, and Neil be overwhelmed and outmatched? The only chance this group has is if they keep up a relentless forecheck, never stop skating, and capitalize on their chances.
I have a lot of faith in the likes of Zibanejad and Silfverberg to provide secondary scoring, but I begin to wonder if they've run out of gas. It's been a long year for rookies after you consider the compressed schedule. This is probably the second biggest factor in determining this series.
One reason why I like the Sens chances to make this a series is the sheer size of their defense. Methot, Phillips, Gryba, and Cowen are all 6'3 or taller. The Pens scoring forwards might be lethal with the puck, but they are not intimidating on the physical side, and Crosby, Malkin, and Neal are all concussions risks everytime they step on the ice. If the Senators can finish their checks, punish the Pens forwards, and stay disciplined, they will have a real shot at the upset. That is of course easier said than done, but the blueprint is there. The Flyers really got the Pens off their game last year when they played in-your-face hockey. Add in Karlsson and Gonchar to the mix, and there is a lot of potential for a balanced approach from the blueline.
I'm not going to predict that the Senators win this series, because we are talking about the Penguins after all, but they do have the makeup to make this interesting. If the Penguins goaltending falters, the Senators can win this series.
The wild card that I haven't mentioned yet is the possible return of Jason Spezza. He's back skating with the team and could return to action in the latter half of the series. If Ottawa can somehow split the first four games, Spezza could swing things in Ottawa's favor in the deciding games.
That said, the smart choice here is to play safe. Sportsbooks are making the Penguins two game favorites, just as they did against the Islanders. I think the chances of the Senators winning three games is greater than them going out early.
Prediction: Ottawa +2 games for the series (-125)