OTTAWA – Shaking hands with the Ottawa Senators felt vastly different for the Pittsburgh Penguins this time around.
“A little more smiling,” said Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Just 12 months after being handed their lunch in a five-game series that wasn’t really close, the Penguins returned the favour and then some this spring, with a 3-1 win Wednesday night capping a four-game sweep that was never in doubt.
“We’re still a young team but we were even younger last year with most of us going through the playoffs for the very first time,” said 20-year-old superstar Sidney Crosby, a first playoff series win now under his belt. “It’s always tough to lose but they handled us pretty well throughout every game last year. They were hard on us.
“To be able to come back this year and learn from our mistakes and be better for it and get a win feels good for sure.”
The Senators, meanwhile, were put out of their misery. Unable to shake a mid-season funk that ultimately destroyed their season, the Senators met their expected end.
“Really disappointed, really frustrated,” said Senators head coach and GM Bryan Murray. “We looked like we had a promising season ahead of us. Over the course of the latter part of the year we just didn’t play the way we had been playing.”
Sidney Crosby, Jarkko Ruutu and Evgeni Malkin scored Wednesday night for the Penguins, who recorded their first four-game playoff sweep since doing it against Chicago in the 1992 Stanley Cup final. Those were the glory years for the Penguins, and it appears Chapter 2 is on its way.
“I think they have a real good chance of going a long ways,” Murray said of the Penguins.
Cory Stillman had the lone goal for the Senators, who ended their season by winning only 18 of their final 48 games (18-26-4) once the calendar changed Jan. 1.
Their mediocre form made them an unpopular pick to upset the high-flying Penguins, and for good reason. Pittsburgh never looked threatened in this series and outshot Ottawa 161-112 while completing the only first-round sweep in the NHL.
Less than a year removed from a trip to the Stanley Cup final, Ottawa’s mystifying decline will lead to a busy and interesting off-season.
“There’s going to be some change. There has to be,” said Murray.
Defenceman Wade Redden, for one, likely played his final game as a Senator after spending all 11 of his NHL seasons in the nation’s capital. He’s an unrestricted free agent July 1 and few believe he will return. Other unrestricted free agents include Stillman, Chris Kelly, Martin Lapointe, Luke Richardson, Shean Donovan and Mike Commodore. But change could also come in the form of trades as Murray tries to remake a roster that clearly no longer works.
To be fair, late-season injuries to key players Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly didn’t help, but the slide started way before bodies began to fall.
Star forwards Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley will have some soul searching to do this off-season. They were limited to two assists in total in this series while Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined for 15 points.
“That’s the difference in winning and losing series,” said Murray. “That’s not fair but that’s the way it is. Not being to get goals from that pair (Spezza and Heatley) – along with a couple of other guys – it really sunk us.”
Murray, who has doubled as head coach since firing John Paddock in late February, reunited his big line as a last attempt to kickstart his offence. But Spezza, Heatley and the ailing Alfredsson didn’t generate much aside from a brief third-period flurry. In fact, one shift in the first period said it all. Pittsburgh’s third line centred by Jordan Staal played keep away with the puck in the Ottawa zone for a good minute while Ottawa’s big line struggled to keep up.
There would be no magic from the big line on this night.
A scoreless first period saw the visitors outshoot the home side 14-5 as the Senators failed to come out strong despite the boisterous backing of their fans.
The Penguins opened the scoring on a power play 1:40 into the second period. Malkin took a perfect feed from Crosby at the side of the net and backhanded in his own rebound after Martin Gerber made the first save.
The crowd got back into it when Stillman tied it 1-1 at 10:31 with a second-effort goal in the goal mouth while being hammered down to the ice.
But Ruutu zapped all the energy out of the building at 15:28 when his surprising spin-o-rama backhand beat Gerber five-hole.
Vermette thought he had tied 2-2 at 17:01 but a video review correctly disallowed his goal, which was clearly kicked in with his right skate.
The Sens pressed for the tying goal late in the third period but couldn’t beat Fleury. Crosby ended the suspense with an empty-netter 7.5 seconds from the end.
Notes: Veteran winger Gary Roberts (groin) was out for a second straight game. Adam Hall once again took his spot in the lineup. Penguins defenceman Darryl Sydor was a healthy scratch for the fourth straight playoff game, as were forwards Kris Beech and Jeff Taffe … Defenceman Luke Richardson, forwards Alexander Nikulin, Randy Robitaille and Brian McGrattan were healthy scratches for Ottawa while centres Mike Fisher (knee) and Kelly (leg) remained out with injuries.