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Sean Leahy

Decadent NHL Playoff Preview: Pittsburgh (4) vs. Ottawa (5)

Sean Leahy
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The 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs are upon us, in all of their delicious glory. We'll be previewing each first-round series this week and providing you with a sugar rush through our poorly executed dessert porn theme. Check out all the previews to find out who takes the ... er, taco.

The first step in the Pittsburgh Penguins' defense of their Stanley Cup title comes against a familiar opponent. Facing the Ottawa Senators for the third time now in the last four postseasons in the opening round, the Penguins enter the series relatively healthy, while Ottawa will be missing Alex Kovalev(notes) and minute-munching defenseman Filip Kuba(notes).

How can the Senators knock off the Penguins? Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun believes they need to "take away the Penguins' will to win." Will a 3-1 series lead for Ottawa force the Penguins, who've gone through two deep playoff runs, to throw in the towel? Or is taking away their will to win an updated reference from a Don Brennan column two years ago suggesting Ottawa target's Sidney Crosby's(notes) then-bad ankle? We're not really sure what the means at the moment.

Pittsburgh is expected to roll the Senators, setting up a Crosby-Ovechkin second round match up, but this series has the slight potential for upset.

After the jump, we dive in headfirst into Pens and Sens.

Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Ottawa Senators (5)

Wednesday, April 14 at Pittsburgh 7 p.m. ET CBC, VERSUS
Friday, April 16 at Pittsburgh 7 p.m. ET CBC, VERSUS
Sunday, April 18 at Ottawa 6:30 p.m. ET CBC, VERSUS
Tuesday, April 20 at Ottawa 7 p.m. ET CBC, VERSUS
*Thursday, April 22 at Pittsburgh 7 p.m. ET CBC, VERSUS
*Saturday, April 24 at Ottawa 7 p.m. ET CBC, VERSUS
*Tuesday, April 27 at Pittsburgh 7 p.m. ET CBC

Forwards

Alex Kovalev's absence from the playoffs may be a blessing in disguise or a missed component of the Senators offense. The veteran enigma underwhelmed in his first season in Ottawa, but it'll be hard not to miss his presence and offensive ability in trying to beat Marc-Andre Fleury(notes). Jason Spezza(notes), Mike Fisher(notes) and Daniel Alfredsson(notes) will be relied upon to spur the Senators' offense and hope to make up for their disappearing acts in 2008 when these two teams last met.

Spezza and Alfredsson were held to one point combined in that series, and Fisher had to miss the playoffs due to a knee injury.

The Penguins' offensive weapons are well known. What will be interesting to watch is what newcomer Alexei Ponikarovsky(notes) (2 goals, 7 assists with Pittsburgh) brings to the postseason. Acquired from Toronto at the trade deadline for prospect Luca Caputi(notes), the Penguins are hoping Ponikarovsky can add another big body producer up front along with Bill Guerin(notes).

It worked a year ago with Guerin, who scored seven goals and 15 points in 24 playoff games en route to the Stanley Cup. With Ponikarovsky an upcoming unrestricted free agent, a strong postseason will only help his bank account come next season.

Takes The Cake. Jordan Staal(notes) and Pittsburgh's ability to shut down the Jason Spezza/Daniel Alfredsson line will open up opportunities for the Penguins and will expose Ottawa's lack of offensive depth.

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Defense

A key ingredient missing in the Senators' blueline will be Filip Kuba, who underwent back surgery last week and will miss the rest of the season. He led the Ottawa defense in points and time-on-ice. Acquired at the deadline for depth, Andy Sutton(notes), second in the NHL in blocked shots with 204, has stepped in from a defensive aspect and rookie (and Kuba's partner) Erik Karlsson(notes) has been on a scoring tear since late-March and finished third among all rookie defensemen with 26 points. Chris Phillips(notes) will be the veteran presence and along with Anton Volchenkov(notes), who was Ottawa's only plus blueliner.

One of the NHL's best defensive-defensemen, Volchenkov will be relishing the duty of continuing to shut down Sidney Crosby. The Penguins' captain has scored the least amount of goals against Ottawa than any other Eastern Conference opponent.

Volchenkov also is one who will give up his body to block a shot, something that the Senators can expect with Pittsburgh's offensive-minded defensemen in Sergei Gonchar(notes), Kris Letang(notes) and Alex Goligoski(notes). Eighth in the NHL with 172 blocked shot, Volchenkov's play in shutting down the Penguins' top line will be key in keeping Ottawa in the series.

Among all playoff teams, Pittsburgh and Ottawa are the top two teams in goals allowed with 237 and 238 respectively. Missing the shutdown pairing of Hal Gill(notes) and Rob Scuderi(notes) that led them to success a year ago, Pittsburgh has inserted rookie Alex Goligoski and veterans Jay McKee(notes) and Jordan Leopold(notes) to the fold. Gonchar (11) and Goligoski (8) led the Pittsburgh defense in goals, while Leopold has scored four of his 11 tallies since moving to Pittsburgh on March 3.

takes the cake, because Sutton, Volchenkov and Phillips will force the Penguins to play down low and take away their point shots. Their shot-blocking ability will also hurt Pittsburgh's already up-and-down power play.

Goaltending

Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off a Stanley Cup title and when he is on his game, nothing can beat him. He's prone to a soft goal, sometimes taking him off his game, but he's shown his ability to win the big game when it counts.

Brian Elliott(notes) is a playoff virgin who is given the task of keeping the Pittsburgh offense quiet in his first foray into the playoffs. Good luck, kid.

takes the cake. This may not be the year for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they are built for the playoffs and it's hard to believe Fleury will falter enough in the opening round to let the Senators move on.

Your slice of Senators history:

Let's hope when the series shifts to ScotiaBank Place on Sunday evening, they lock the Spartan out of the building:

Special Teams

Both are pretty similar on the power play and penalty kill. Pittsburgh was 19th in the NHL at 17.2 percent, while Ottawa was 21s at 16.9 percent. You would think a power play featuring names like Crosby, Malkin and Gonchar would be better than 19th, but it's an area the Penguins have struggled with all season. Crosby and Malkin each scored 13 times with the extra man to lead Pittsburgh. Jason Spezza (11) and Mike Fisher (10) were the only Senators to hit double digits in power play goals.

Another slight advantage comes in the penalty kill department. Ottawa finished eighth in the NHL with an 84.3 percent success rate, while Pittsburgh is right behind them in ninth with 84.1 percent.

takes the cake. It'll be a pretty even match-up given their histories this season with special teams. Though, one would think eventually Pittsburgh's power play would live up to its potential.

Trick Candles (The Agitators)

Chris Neil(notes) and especially Jarkko Ruutu(notes) will do their bests to get inside the heads of the Penguins and take them off their game. They rule the pest department for the Senators and if push comes to shove, Matt Carkner(notes) can step in if punches need to be thrown.

Accepting the fighting requests will likely be Mike Rupp, a vet who brings some sandpaper to the Pittsburgh lineup. Matt Cooke(notes) will continue to be Matt Cooke.

takes the cake. Ruutu and Cooke cancel each other out. Neil gets the edge because of his almost three minutes more of ice time than Rupp.

Noted Baker Giada De Laurentiis of Food Network Says ...

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"Look, I hear you, OK: Alexei Kovalev is almost a point-per-game player in the postseason. Doesn't mean he would have done [expletive] against the 'Guins, OK? Now if you'll excuse me, I've need to grab the meat and go to town. Why are you staring at me like that?"

Cupcakes (Goat Factor)

Fleury will be the reason this series ends early or goes long. It was his play that helped drive the Penguins to the Finals a year ago, and knowing what Crosby and Malkin will bring, it'll be up to him to decide how far they go this year.

The Spezza/Alfredsson line cannot go another postseason with one point combined. With Alfredsson healthy this time around and Mike Fisher in the lineup, Ottawa cannot rely on its secondary scoring to get past Pittsburgh.

takes the cake. The Penguins offense can overcome a shaky Fleury. Ottawa cannot overcome Spezza or Alfredsson going quiet in the series.

The Baker (Coaching)

Both coaches began their jobs behind the bench with little experience. Both made immediate impacts on their teams. Bylsma's calm presence behind the Pittsburgh bench is seen by his players and reflects in their play.

Cory Clouston has done wonders with the Senators even after they dealt away one part of their three-headed monster scoring attack a year ago. Is he able to devise a scheme to knock off the defending champions in the opening round?

takes the cake. Righting a sinking ship a year ago en route to a Stanley Cup title? That's delicious.

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Home Icing: (Home Ice Advantage):

The Penguins (25-12-4) and Senators (26-11-4) were strong at home, but the big difference was the road records. Pittsburgh was 22-16-3 away from Mellon Arena, while Ottawa struggled with an 18-21-2 record on the road.

takes the cake at the Igloo.

The Last Slice (Prediction)

Penguins in 5

For the Senators to give the Penguins any trouble, Brian Elliott will have to stand on his head and steal the series himself. Marc-Andre Fleury may not be heading into the playoffs playing like he did a year ago, but he still has the experience advantage over Elliott with two deep runs the past two seasons.

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