Ottawa Senators happy to accept underdog role against Penguins

OTTAWA – Underachieving and undermanned, the Ottawa Senators admit they look like an easy target for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

So much so that Senators general manager and coach Bryan Murray has all but accused the Penguins of tanking their final regular-season game to ensure the matchup.

On Sunday, the Penguins could have clinched first place in the conference with a victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Instead, they sat superstar Sidney Crosby and suffered through a sub-par outing on their way to a 2-0 defeat.

The loss kept the Penguins second with 102 points, two fewer than the Montreal Canadiens, and set up a matchup against the seventh-seeded Senators, a banged-up team that’s lost four of its last five games heading into the playoffs and will start the post-season without key forwards Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly because of injury.

“I knew what was going on,” Murray said Monday following his team’s practice in preparation for Wednesday’s series opener at Mellon Arena (7 p.m. ET).

“You guys all know, they wanted to play Ottawa. That’s fine. That was fairly obvious from the drop of the puck.”

Asked why Pittsburgh would go that route considering the Senators won three of four meetings in the regular season, Murray suggested to reporters that they should ask the Penguins, but he offered that perhaps they wanted to avoid Philadelphia after beating the Flyers 4-2 in a rough, physical affair last week.

“The physical nature of the game last Wednesday against the Flyers was the first thing that I thought of,” Murray said. “And in a seven-game series, if you don’t like the physical way that the Flyers played, it’s probably better to go elsewhere.”

Whether Murray actually believes that or is just stirring the pot in an attempt to give his team some kind of edge, it’s clear he’s laying down a challenge to the Senators, who limped badly down the stretch after leading the conference for much of the regular season.

“Obviously (the Penguins) think that we’re a better team to play against at this moment, which is fine,” he said. “It’s a challenge. It doesn’t matter what we say or do now. We’ve got to play our best, best hockey of the year without a question and find a way to compete each and every game and each and every shift.

“And if we find a way to do that, we can make it really interesting, and if they don’t they’re going to score some goals.”

The Senators players didn’t seem to agree with Murray’s conspiracy theory, particularly given the fact that Crosby has been nursing a high ankle sprain that contributed to him appearing in just 53 games during the regular season.

“We’ve done that in the past, rested up guys with injuries,” defenceman Chris Phillips said.

“I don’t think any team does that in this day and age,” centre Jason Spezza added.

However, the players do agree with Murray on the fact that, after finishing just eight points back of the Penguins in the standings, they’re not being given much of a chance in the series, let alone to repeat last year’s post-season success that saw them win the Eastern Conference.

“We’re well aware that nobody’s picking us to win this series,” Spezza said. “I don’t see a lot of people that believe in us.

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“We’ve got a bad rap the last month or so here but we feel differently about our team. We still have the manpower here.”

And the chance to salvage its season is all the motivation the Senators need.

“It’s a clean slate,” defenceman Wade Redden said. “We can talk all we want about the season, but we start fresh on Wednesday.”

The Senators knocked off the Penguins in just five games in last year’s opening round, but Ottawa concedes that Pittsburgh is a different animal this time around.

In Crosby’s absence, Evgeni Malkin emerged as a star in his own right and the addition of former Ottawa player Marian Hossa at the trade deadline makes the Penguins much more dangerous.

“They’re a year better,” Redden said. “They’ve got some young guys that had their first taste last year.

“Obviously, with the guys they’ve got, we’ve got to be good defensively.”

Last year, Phillips and Anton Volchenkov teamed up against Crosby, but that duo has been split up as a result of the Senators’ struggles and with Malkin, who finished the regular season as the NHL’s second-leading scorer with 106 points, having emerged as a threat in his own right, Ottawa’s play in front of goaltender Martin Gerber will be in the spotlight.

“(Malkin has) the confidence to make more plays and more moves,” Phillips said. “This year they definitely have a few more dimensions that we have to be aware of on the ice.

“You have to be in their face as much as possible and limit the time they have with the puck.”

Up front, the Senators will struggle to overcome the loss of right-winger and captain Alfredsson, who had 40 goals and 49 assists during the season, after he suffered unspecified upper-body injuries and a knee injury after Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mark Bell ran him over in Ottawa’s penultimate game last week.

Fisher, a second-line centre who had 23 goals on the year, was also lost to a knee injury that same game and both players are expected to be looking at absences that could be looked at in terms of “weeks” rather than days, according to Murray.

Kelly, also a centre, may only just return to skating on the weekend after suffering a broken lower leg bone on March 22.

Their absences take three of Ottawa’s top four penalty-killing forwards out of the lineup and that could prove costly against the Penguins power play, which ranked fourth in the league at a 20.4 per cent success rate.

Antoine Vermette has been among Ottawa’s top forwards down the stretch and he’ll be among the players expected to pick up the slack.

“We’re aware that we’re losing some key players, so we want to be good as a group,” he said. “(The Penguins) are the favourites, they finished ahead of us, we’re missing some key guys and that’s fine.”

Murray experimented with his line combinations in practice Monday and Randy Robitaille could start the series on the Senators’ top line with Spezza and left-winger Dany Heatley.

For all the talk regarding Pittsburgh’s firepower, the Senators still like their chances of scoring some goals, too, in spite of their injury troubles.

“We feel is we play our top game, then we’re right there with anybody in the league,” Heatley said.