Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean is normally voluble, a co-operative and occasionally even outspoken soul, but he had little to add to what appeared on the score sheet Tuesday night. And so, MacLean kept it short and sweet post-game, advising the assembled reporters: "See you in Pittsburgh. We're going to Pittsburgh, and we're coming to play. Have a good night."
Well, sometimes brevity IS the soul of wit – and it would be hard to know where exactly to start in explaining the Pittsburgh Penguins' 7-3 rout over the Ottawa Senators, a game that started out as the sort of nail-biter that made you think, maybe, just maybe, the Senators had a chance.
There they were, up 2-1 after a period, with goaltender Craig Anderson putting on a show again, frustrating among others Sidney Crosby, with a couple of great saves. Anderson had stopped 49 of 50 shots in the OT win in Game 3 and he wasn't showing any signs of cracking here either. Even in the second period, when a pair of quick-strike goals by Chris Kunitz and Jarome Iginla, turned a one-goal deficit into a one-goal Penguins' lead, you still thought the Senators might have a chance in the third. Two players, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Jason Spezza, rattled second-period shots off the post. Ottawa had been exceptional in the third and OT – holding a 16-1 edge in goals.
But that's the challenge with the Penguins – they just come at you with so many weapons that eventually, something must give. It did – a power-play goal, a shorthanded goal, and an even-strength goal from Crosby, the 40th of his NHL career, and all of a sudden, the Senators were left to ponder, what happened? Pittsburgh isn't the most precise team defensively. Kris Letang had one of those nights, where he made up for a poor first period, by setting up four goals the rest of the night. Letang giveth and he taketh away.
But the hardest moment for Sens fans to endure was that of all the things that happened in the game, it was a hard-working penalty-killing shift by the villainous Matt Cooke that put the finishing touches on the victory. After drawing the penalty that led to James Neal's early third-period goal, Cooke swept past Anderson and found a wide-open Pascal Dupuis for his seventh of the playoffs, a shorthanded effort, which created a three-goal cushion and put the game out of reach. Dupuis had zero points in 16 games for the Penguins during Pittsburgh's 2009 Stanley Cup championship rout, but along with Crosby is leading the NHL in scoring with seven now. Impressive for the throw-in in the Marian Hossa deal, a trade that general manager Ray Shero originally made to give Crosby somebody to play with.
And while the Senators were still dazed and confused, Crosby went right around Chris Phillips with a neat toe-drag move. Crosby incidentally got to 40 playoff goals in 77 games, best among active NHLers. (Jaromir Jagr is next at 86, followed by Henrik Zetterberg at 87, Johan Franzen 90, Danny Briere 92 and Daniel Alfredsson 97). Impressive again – just one more indication that even if it isn't going to be easy for the Penguins this post-season, it looks as if it'll be fun. In all, they now have 41 goals in their first 10 playoff games.
What's more, if they get through and the Boston Bruins, up 3-0 against the New York Rangers advance as well, then you'll have the de facto Iginla Bowl – the team that landed Iginla at the trading deadline from the Calgary Flames against the team that came up as the first runner-up. The only juicier plot line would be if Boston and San Jose get to the Stanley Cup final, and the Bruins get to welcome Joe Thornton back for a playoff series.
KINGS STUCK IN NEUTRAL
Getting an accurate reading on whether a player is playing hurt or not is usually impossible in the playoffs. Sometimes, you get a sense, just in watching, when a player is not right. Two years ago, for example, the San Jose Sharks' Joe Thornton was playing in the third round against the Vancouver Canucks with a separated shoulder, but wouldn't let on – not publicly anyway. Thornton always kept saying the same thing – he was fine; and that if you're in the line-up, you're healthy enough to play. Then, afterward, he owned up to the truth – how badly he was hurt – and this year, Thornton's teammates talked about how they had to help him pull his sweater over his shoulder the way you assist a five-year-old because he couldn't lift his arm over his head.
Sometimes, that's why good players have bad playoffs – physically, they just aren't all there. Todd McLellan puts it this way: There's a difference between being injured and being hurt. When you're injured, you have to come out of the line-up. If you're hurt, you find a way to muddle through.
What you look for is small signs to explain how someone like the Kings' Anze Kopitar could be having so much trouble scoring. Kopitar doesn't look right, and where you really notice it is how many fewer shots he's taking. A year ago, when Kopitar tied with Dustin Brown for the playoff scoring lead, he was averaging 2.8 shots per game in the playoffs, this after averaging 2.7 shots in last year's regular season. This year, Kopitar had just a 2.1 average in the regular season (98 shots in 47 games), and he's fallen to just 1.8 in the playoffs (18 shots in 10 games). Brown was taken off Kopitar's line at practice Wednesday and replaced by Kyle Clifford. The Kings' captain was placed on the third line, which – in the absence of Jarret Stoll – is being centered by Trevor Lewis.
Now, Kings' coach Darryl Sutter doesn't mix and match lines nearly as much as his coaching contemporaries and he'll often go back to his standard lines, after a short time experimenting with new combinations. So for Sutter, this is an unusual step.
For one night anyway, it'll feel like the first round all over again, with three games on tap Thursday, including the Rangers-Bruins. Say what you will about New York under coach John Tortorella, his teams play well in elimination games, including two wins against the Caps in the first round this year.
Meanwhile, if the East looks set, the West is still genuinely up for grabs, the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings and the President's Trophy winning Chicago Blackhawks getting unexpected challenges from the Sharks and Detroit Red Wings respectively. Thornton was the focal point of Wednesday's talk, after the NHL produced a stat that he has been on the ice for 17 goals for and only one goal against in his first eight playoff games this spring. He along with line-mates Brent Burns and T.J. Galiardi have been catalysts for their mid-season turnaround, and according to Burns, it works "because the maturity of our line is that of a 7-year-old. It's just fun. We're laughing on the ice, on the bench. Hockey is fun, and you get out there and just work hard. We just have a good time with each other."