In the end, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ depth and scoring was simply too much for the Ottawa Senators. Following their 7-3 win in Game 4, the Penguins returned home to rout the Senators again, 6-2, and become the first team to advance to the Conference Finals.
“I hope they don’t bill us for the clinic,” said Senators head coach Paul MacLean. “It’s a great learning experience for our team; they really showed the step you have to take to continue to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs. To Pittsburgh’s credit, they never stepped off the pedal one time, and that’s what it takes.”
“I think the depth we had showed, with different guys chipping in,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “We didn’t have too many lulls where we lost momentum at any point.”
The Senators had the NHL’s No. 2 defense and No. 1 penalty kill in the regular season, and its stingiest starting goaltender in Craig Anderson, who boasted a 1.69 goals-against average and .941 save percentage. But the Penguins’ offensive weapons found a way to bury 20 goals over the five games – chasing Anderson twice – and 13 in the last two.
“Focus-wise, the way we came out, the way we played this game on our toes and dictating right from the start was how we needed to play,” said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. “There’s a lot of notoriety for scoring goals, but I liked our ability to play the game defensively, play the game the right way and not allow a team like Ottawa to get back in.
“Tonight, we had the opportunity to put exclamation points on the game and not just sit back, and we did that.”
Winger James Neal led the team with a hat trick and an assist in Game 5, matching his career-best playoff total of seven points in the last two games alone.
“I think we surprise ourselves when we play with a lot of speed, get [the puck] behind them and keep going to the net,” Neal said. “We showed that again tonight … being physical, getting loose pucks. I can’t say enough about how hard we played throughout the series.”
Like they did in the first round against the New York Islanders, the Penguins made slight adjustments throughout this series to adapt to their opponent’s strengths. Jussi Jokinen and Beau Bennett were subbed in for speed in Game 4; Jokinen stayed in for Game 5. When defenseman Kris Letang, a Norris Trophy candidate primarily for his offensive ability, started Game 4 with a poor defensive performance, Bylsma broke up his pairing with Matt Niskanen and subbed in steady, stay-at-home D Mark Eaton.
“It’s a comfortable pair; they played together a lot this year and in the past,” Bylsma said. “Kris was playing the off-side with Niskanen at times in Game 4 and that wasn’t the strongest period, so we switched our pairs and I thought Mark Eaton … was a big factor, did a great job against some of their skill and speed. He and Kris were strong together in a secondary matchup role against their speed lines, strong for us in the last five periods.”
The team also adapted its power play, which at one point went 0-for-11, to offer a variety of looks against the Senators’ aggressive penalty kill.
“We had success in the first series with Jarome [Iginla] on the left point; his shot was a real factor,” Bylsma said. “With the way the Senators penalty kill, the pressure they bring in-zone, it was not as effective for us. The option that James [Neal] provides for our group, in addition to being in the middle of the ice, was a much better fit, and we got results with that in Game 4 and again today. We [also] use two defensemen a lot.
“I think it’s always been a strength of our power play to have different people involved, and it’s tough to penalty-kill against. It’s tough to know exactly what to expect and who to look for in which spot; it’s a tough assignment.”
Penguins goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who started the playoffs backing up Marc-Andre Fleury, continues to earn the job with solid performances. He’s now the playoffs’ No. 2 netminder with a .941 save percentage, and No. 4 in goals-against (1.85) and wins (six).
“I came here for the chance to be able to go deep in the playoffs, and I’m not the only one; there’s a couple of other guys like that here,” Vokoun said. “From my own experience, I know how hard it is to get where we are right now and you appreciate it, you enjoy it and, obviously, you leave everything out there.”
As the Penguins advance through the playoffs, they are shaking off recent disappointments, one step at a time. By moving past the first round, they accomplished something they hadn’t done since 2010. Advancing past the second round to a Conference Final hadn’t happened since 2009, the year Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup. And Friday marked the first time since 2008 that the Penguins clinched a series on home ice – as well as the first time under Bylsma, who had been 0-6 in those situations, and at the CONSOL Energy Center.
The Penguins now wait for either the Boston Bruins or New York Rangers, and their confidence is building.
“We definitely are [improving],” Neal said. “And it’s something we’ve talked about from day one, to get better each day and each game.”
The Senators, meanwhile, will take the lessons learned from a more experienced team and continue to move forward.
“I thought they were very good, very consistent throughout the five games, and really had us on our heels for most every game,” MacLean said. “It’s a hard lesson to swallow the last two games here; it’s real tough to get beat like [that].
“But one thing about our group is that adversity really tends to be something we can thrive on. And we will take good things out of this, and it will make us better.”