The last time the Pittsburgh Penguins were in the playoffs, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr carried them to the Eastern Conference finals. This Pittsburgh team hopes to go even further behind a new group of stars.
Led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, the talented but inexperienced Penguins head into the postseason for the first time since 2000-01 when they take on the Ottawa Senators, a team that has struggled in the playoffs, in the series opener Wednesday.
Crosby, 19, finished as the league’s top scorer with 120 points after getting 102 as a rookie in 2005-06, making him the youngest player in league history with two 100-point seasons. His continued development into a superstar helped Pittsburgh (47-24-11) finish second in the Atlantic Division and match Ottawa’s 105 points, but the Senators (48-25-9) earned the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and home-ice advantage in the series by finishing with one more win.
Pittsburgh, however, took three of the four meetings with the Sens this season, including both matchups at Ottawa.
That success has given the center confidence that the Penguins can overcome their inexperience in the playoffs. Only 10 of the 25 Penguins have played in the postseason, while the Senators have qualified for 10 consecutive seasons.
“I don’t think we are intimidated,” said Crosby, who had a goal and three assists against Ottawa this season. “Once we get started, I’m sure we will be OK. Not all of us have been in the NHL playoffs, but most of us have been in situations where it’s a grind. We’ve been in different leagues and been in the playoffs. We know there’s pressure and emotion.”
Forward Mark Recchi, Pittsburgh’s most experienced player in the postseason with 135 games, is familiar with that pressure. He helped Carolina win the Stanley Cup last season and was one of the Penguins’ top players when the team won the first of two straight Stanley Cups in the 1990-91 season.
Crosby was three years old at the time, and was only 13 when Pittsburgh last made the playoffs in 2000-01. Lemieux and Jagr led the Penguins into the conference finals, only to lose in five games to New Jersey.
“I think we got some guys here that can show all the guys in here what it’s like,” said Fleury, the 22-year-old Penguins goalie who had a breakout season by going 40-16-9 with a 2.83 goals-against average.
The Penguins also need a strong playoff performance from Malkin, a contender for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie after recording 33 goals and 52 assists this season.
The Senators are hoping their experience will be an advantage in their first playoff matchup with Pittsburgh, but Ottawa will also be trying to overcome years of postseason failure. The Sens have made the playoffs 10 straight times and topped the 100-point mark in six of those seasons, but have made the conference finals once, losing in seven games to the Devils in 2002-03.
“It’s a different team,” Senators right wing Daniel Alfredsson told Ottawa’s official Web site. “It has gone through a lot of changes since last year.”
The Senators piled up an Eastern Conference-best 113 points and won the Northeast Division in 2005-06, but were eliminated in five games in the second round by Buffalo.
Ottawa followed up that season by finishing eight points behind the Sabres in the Northeast.
Despite the offseason addition of goaltender Martin Gerber, who helped Carolina win the Stanley Cup last season, Ottawa is expected to go with former backup Ray Emery in net to start the playoffs. Emery finished 33-16-6 with a 2.47 GAA and five shutouts, although he stumbled in the playoffs last year, going 5-5 with a 2.88 GAA.
Dany Heatley, the Sens’ top scorer with 50 goals and 55 assists, was held to two points in the playoff series against Buffalo last season, including none in the last four contests.
Those disappointments are not lost on the Penguins, who won 3-2 at Ottawa on Thursday.
“For sure, they’ve got a lot of pressure,” Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien said. “For unknown reasons, Ottawa just puts great hockey teams on the ice - great hockey teams - and they go to the playoffs with huge expectations from the media, from fans, from coaches, and ownership but, for unknown reasons, they’ve had bad luck so far. You need some luck, you need some breaks when you go to the playoffs.”