Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Ottawa vs. Pittsburgh

Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Ottawa vs. Pittsburgh

Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Ottawa vs. Pittsburgh

April 10th, 2007
(Sports Network) - The Ottawa Senators were somewhat of an afterthought in the Northeast Division this season, thanks to the fact that the Buffalo Sabres put together the best campaign in franchise history.

Yet while the Sabres ran away with the division crown and also took the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and the club's first-ever Presidents' Trophy, the Senators were putting together another solid season. In fact, Ottawa had 105 points and finished fourth in the conference, the highest seed awarded to a non-division winner.

The Senators have breached the 100-point mark in four straight and six of the last eight seasons, but have only made it past the second round of the conference playoffs once in team history.

Ottawa had a slow start to the 2006-07 campaign and was just 6-10-1 after the first 17 games of the season. However, the Sens eventually righted the ship and went 42-15-8 the rest of the way, at one point even challenging Buffalo for the division lead.

The Senators knew they were going to score a great deal of goals this year, and they wound up with 288 markers -- the second most in the NHL to Buffalo's 308. However, what really saved Ottawa from its early-season slump was a change in goal.

Martin Gerber was signed away from Carolina in the summer, just months after he watched rookie Cam Ward supplant him in net and lead the Hurricanes to their first-ever Stanley Cup title. Gerber also began this season as the No. 1 goaltender in Ottawa, but eventually the 24-year-old Ray Emery emerged as the club's first option in net.

Emery had an excellent season for the Sens, going 33-16-6 with a .918 save percentage and a 2.47 goals against average. He also managed five shutouts in his 56 starts and enters the postseason as Ottawa's goaltender of the present, and most likely the future.

While Emery gave the Senators some much-needed stability in goal, the club had no problem consistently putting the puck in the net.

Ottawa's main scoring threat is Dany Heatley, who finished fourth in the NHL with a career-high 105 points on the year. Heatley also notched 50 goals on the dot for the second straight season and set a new career best with 55 assists. The 26-year-old winger is clearly the player everyone thought he would be when Atlanta selected him with the second overall pick in the 2000 draft.

Heatley is complimented perfectly on the team's top line by centerman Jason Spezza, a 6-foot-3, 213-pound weapon. Spezza, 23, recorded 87 points (34 goals, 53 assists) despite missing 15 games to injury. The Ontario native is also turning into an excellent faceoff man for the Senators.

To the right of Spezza is veteran winger Daniel Alfredsson, who had 87 points (29 goals, 58 assists) in 77 contests this season. It marked the sixth straight year that Ottawa's captain scored at least 70 points.

Center Mike Fisher and wingers Peter Schaefer and Mike Comrie make up a solid second line, as each of those players scored 45 or more points this year.

Wade Redden has been a mainstay on the blue line in Ottawa for the last decade and will hope to have a strong postseason after struggling through injuries this year. Redden finished the year with 36 points (7 goals, 29 assists) in just 64 games, but was once again a steady producer on the power play.

Tom Preissing and Joe Corvo also had solid seasons on defense for the Sens, as they scored 38 and 37 points, respectively.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (5th seed, East)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 47-24-11

2006 PLAYOFFS: Failed to qualify

Sidney Crosby showed what kind of scorer he could be during his rookie season, but this year the 19-year-old phenom displayed the leadership and determination it takes to be the centerpiece of a winning hockey team.

That's not to say that Crosby didn't improve his scoring ability this season. In fact, he became the youngest player in NHL history to win the Art Ross Trophy by pacing the league with 120 points (36 goals, 84 assists).

It was obvious early on this season that the Penguins had improved from the team that managed just 58 points during the 2005-06 campaign, but it wasn't until after the new year that Pittsburgh really began to make a statement.

The Pens have been the best team in the NHL since the middle of January, going 29-7-4 in their last 40 games and sending a message to the rest of the league that this is not merely a team of the future.

However, the Penguins' revival cannot simply be attributed to the play of Crosby, because some other youngsters and a few veterans have picked up the scoring slack as well.

Leading the way in the non-Crosby youth category was the 18-year-old Russian Evgeni Malkin, who was second on the team with 85 points (33 goals, 52 assists) in his first NHL season. Fellow rookie Jordan Staal also was big factor with 29 goals and 13 assists.

On the veteran side, Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts have shown they still have plenty left in the tank. The 39-year-old Recchi posted 68 points (24 goals, 44 assists) while playing all 82 games this year and notched 20-plus goals for the seventh consecutive season. The veteran winger has also been known to throw every bit of his 5-10, 190-pound frame into his checks.

Roberts, who will turn 41 on May 23, was acquired from Florida just before the trade deadline and recorded 13 points (7 goals, 6 assists) in 19 games since joining Pittsburgh. All told, he had 20 goals and 22 assists in 69 games with the Penguins and Panthers this year.

The Penguins have a superb offensive-minded defenseman in Sergei Gonchar, who finished second amongst NHL blueliners in points (67) and tied for first in assists (54). Gonchar is not a physical presence, but he is an essential component of Pittsburgh's power-play unit which ranked fifth in the NHL this year.

Ryan Whitney took a big step forward in his sophomore season and has turned into the team's best all-around defenseman. The 24-year-old posted 14 goals and 45 assists and at 6-4, 215 pounds, he has the size to clean house in his own zone.

In net for the Penguins will be 22-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury, who showed this year why he was the first overall pick in the 2003 draft. After going 13-27-6 during his second NHL campaign in 2005-06, Fleury was 40-16-9 in 67 games this year. The Sorel, Quebec native also recorded five shutouts to go along with a .906 save percentage and 2.83 goals against average.

MATCHUP

A huge part of this NHL season has been about watching Crosby evolve from promise to results in the span of one offseason. Now, it may be too much to expect "Sid the Kid" to continue that development with a serious run at the Stanley Cup in his first postseason. But it doesn't seem wise to bet against it, either.

Just like the Senators, the Penguins are an explosive offensive team, and that's why this could turn out to be the most exciting series in the opening round of the playoffs.

Pittsburgh held the upper hand in the season series with the Sens this year, winning three of the four matchups, and two of Pittsburgh's victories came in shootouts.

The Senators have been an excellent regular-season team for nearly a decade, but outside of their run to the 2003 Eastern Conference finals, the franchise has had very little success in the postseason. Expect that trend to continue as Crosby and the Penguins ride their second-half success into a hard-fought series' win.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Penguins in 7

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