PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Boston or the New York Rangers? To be honest, Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson doesn’t think it matters who the Pittsburgh Penguins face in the Eastern Conference finals.
At the moment, Alfredsson believes the Penguins are a cut above.
“I think they would be the favourite to play either of those two teams,” Alfredsson said. “They have skill, speed, they’re well-coached and a lot of experience as well. So they’re going to be a tough team to beat.”
Certainly too tough for the Senators.
James Neal recorded his first playoff hat trick and Pittsburgh reached the conference finals for the first time since 2009 with a 6-2 dismantling of Ottawa on Friday night, winning the best-of-seven series in five games.
The Penguins improved to 8-3 in the post-season. Eight more wins and they’ll hoist the Cup for the fourth time in franchise history.
“The further you go, the tougher it gets,” Penguins defenceman Doug Murray said. “Every player starts smelling the end result.”
Certainly it’s wafting through the Pittsburgh dressing room after the Penguins dominated one of the NHL’s best defensive teams, rolling up 22 goals in five games, including 12 in the last five periods.
“We got to our game a lot,” Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. “The depth we showed, different guys chipping in. The whole way through we didn’t have many lulls where we lost momentum at any point.”
Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin and Brenden Morrow also scored, and Tomas Vokoun made 29 saves as top-seeded Pittsburgh ended Ottawa’s season for the third time in five years.
Milan Michalek and Kyle Turris scored for the Senators. Craig Anderson stopped 27 shots, but Ottawa simply couldn’t keep up.
“I hope (the Penguins) don’t bill us for the clinic,” Senators coach Paul MacLean said. “But they really showed the step you have to take to continue to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.”
The Penguins expected desperation from a team trying to extend its season for at least another 48 hours. Instead, the Senators offered only resignation.
Outskated, outshot and outworked from the opening faceoff, Ottawa put up little resistance.
“We gave them too many freebie chances and you’re not going to beat a team like that when they get as many chances as they had,” Senators forward Jason Spezza said.
The series win was the seventh for the Penguins under coach Dan Bylsma but the first deciding victory to come on home ice. Pittsburgh had gone 0-6 at home in potential series enders, something Bylsma’s players insisted was an anomaly.
Pittsburgh made sure a trip to Canada for Game 6 wouldn’t be necessary, turning Alfredsson into a prophet of sorts. The NHL’s longest-tenured captain said the Senators “probably” couldn’t rally to win the series after a 7-3 home loss in Game 4 on Wednesday night.
Alfredsson clarified his remarks Thursday, insisting his team still had a chance, but it didn’t take long Friday night for slim to turn into none.
“We weren’t able to slow them down,” Alfredsson said.
Sluggish from the opening faceoff, the Senators slogged through the game’s first 10 minutes, long enough for Morrow to pay immediate dividends in his return to the lineup.
The veteran forward was scratched from Game 4 in favour of rookie Beau Bennett but appeared re-energized after the night off. He got his second goal of the playoffs 6:25 into the first period, scoring the type of goal the Penguins expected when they acquired the 34-year-old from Dallas just before the trade deadline.
Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke beat a Senator to a loose puck along the halfboards then zipped a cross-ice pass to defenceman Mark Eaton. Morrow skated to the net and lifted his stick up to draw Eaton’s attention. Eaton patiently waited for Morrow to get in front of the crease before throwing a puck toward the net that deflected off Morrow’s skate and into the net.
The goal was held up on review and the Senators found themselves in familiar position: trailing.
Ottawa came into the game having led for just 17 minutes in regulation during the entire series, all in Game 4 before Pittsburgh buried the Senators with a four-goal outburst in the third period.
This time, the deluge came a little earlier.
Neal scored for the third time in two games when he poked in an idle rebound on the power play to put Pittsburgh up 2-0 7:38 into the second period. Letang followed with a wrist shot over Anderson’s glove at the end of a 3-on-2 break to make it 3-0.
Michalek briefly made it competitive with a beautiful deke around Vokoun to pull the Senators to 3-1 with 3:48 left in the second but Malkin scored his fourth goal of the playoffs on a breakaway just before the intermission to restore the three-goal lead.
Ottawa hadn’t overcome a deficit bigger than one goal in the post-season and Neal ensured there would be no meltdown by the Penguins. A pair of sizzling wrist shots in the third period gave him his first career playoff hat trick and sent the Penguins roaring into hockey’s final four.
NOTES: Pittsburgh went 1 for 3 on the power play and improved to 6-0 when it outscores an opponent on special teams in the post-season. … Ottawa is 0-6 in franchise history when it falls behind 3-1 in a series.