It took a change in goal, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are finally back in the second round of the playoffs.
Although it was a more competitive serious than most people expected, the top- seeded Penguins were able to get past the No. 8 New York Islanders in Round 1, marking the first time the club has advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals since 2010.
The Pens were tied at two games apiece with the pesky Isles when head coach Dan Bylsma decided to replace Marc-Andre Fleury with veteran goaltender Tomas Vokoun. Fleury posted a shutout in Game 1 before allowing 14 goals over the next three games.
Vokoun, who hadn't seen action in the playoffs since 2007 before this spring, recorded a shutout victory in Game 5 and then kept Pittsburgh in the game long enough to win the series in overtime of Game 6. All told, the 36-year-old stopped 66-of-69 shots in two outings for a .957 save percentage and 1.41 goals against average.
Although Fleury was the No. 1 goaltender when Pittsburgh made consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and '09, the 28-year-old has not fared well in recent postseasons. In his first three playoffs, a run that culminated with the 2009 Stanley Cup crown, Fleury was 31-18 with a 2.45 GAA and .915 save percentage. In four playoff years since then, he is just 14-16 with a 3.15 GAA and .881 save percentage. Fleury's GAA jumps up to 3.46 if you count only his last three spring postseasons.
Although the coach hasn't officially announced a starter for Game 1, all signs point to Bylsma sticking with Vokoun, who is 5-8 with a 2.30 GAA in 13 career playoff games, at the start of the second round. However, don't be surprised if Fleury, a veteran of 79 career playoff games, finds his way back into the crease should Pittsburgh struggle in this series.
Scoring is never a problem for the Penguins, who led all teams with 25 goals in the opening round. However, Pittsburgh has surrendered a whopping 47 goals over 12 playoffs games in the last two seasons, an average of 3.92 goals per contest.
Vokoun did appear to be the answer to that problem in Games 5 and 6 against the Isles, and the Pens hope he can continue to keep the puck out of the net in Round 2 against Ottawa.
Evgeni Malkin led all Pittsburgh players with 11 points (2 goals, 9 assists) in six games against the Isles, while Pascal Dupuis paced the club with five goals.
Captain Sidney Crosby missed the first game of the playoffs due to a fractured jaw that caused him to sit out all of April, but he still managed to finish second on the Pens with nine points (3G, 6A) in five games against New York.
All told, the Pens had seven players register two goals or more in the opening round. That is, of course, a testament to Pittsburgh's tremendous scoring depth up front, but defensemen Kris Letang and Douglas Murray also managed to chip in two goals apiece.
Jarome Iginla, one of a handful of marquee names acquired by Pittsburgh at this year's trade deadline, recorded two goals and seven assists in the opening round.
Brenden Morrow, the former Dallas captain, was another player added during this season, but he managed just one assist against the Isles and was a minus-3 in six games.
James Neal, who finished second on Pittsburgh with 21 goals this season, missed Games 2 and 3 in the opening round due to injury and had one goal in the series.
Letang and Paul Martin log the big minutes at the back end for Bylsma. Another minutes-eater for Pittsburgh is Brooks Orpik, who missed the first three games against the Isles but came back for Game 4 and wound up scoring the OT winner in the clinching win.
Murray and Matt Niskanen played in all six games for the Pens in Round 1, while Bylsma played musical chairs with the rest of his defensive corps. Mark Eaton saw action in four games, while Simon Despres and Deryk Engelland played in three and two tilts, respectively.
Pittsburgh's power play is extremely dangerous and the Pens managed to score on one-third (7-of-21) of their chances in the opening round. They also finished the regular season with the second-best power-play numbers in the NHL, but Ottawa had the league's top PK in 2013.
The Pens also killed off 18-of-20 (90 percent) of New York's power-play chances in the conference quarterfinals, but Pittsburgh was ranked 25th on the PK during the regular season.
OTTAWA SENATORS (7th seed, East)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 25-17-6
2013 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Montreal 4-1 in conference quarterfinals
Last spring, the Ottawa Senators were lauded for pushing the top-seeded New York Rangers to seven games before getting knocked out in the opening round.
This year, however, Paul MacLean's club has bigger things than moral victories on the mind.
Although only the seventh seed in the East, the Senators are clearly a more dangerous team than their standing in the conference suggests. Ottawa showed as much in the opening round, when it dismantled the second-seeded Montreal Canadiens in five games.
Ottawa finished fourth in the Northeast Division this season -- seven points behind the Canadiens -- but there was no question who was the better team in the conference quarterfinals. The Sens outscored the Habs by a combined score of 20-9, posting a pair of 6-1 victories to help make quick work of the division champions.
The Senators may have been seeded higher if not for losing over 200 man-games to injury this season, including absences by some big names. At this stage, however, all the key names are back healthy except top centerman Jason Spezza, and even he could be back sometime in the second round.
Ottawa's most important player, defenseman Erik Karlsson, sat out 31 games during the regular season due to a torn Achilles tendon suffered when Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke stepped on his leg during a Feb. 13 meeting. The injury was originally expected to end Karlsson's season, but last year's Norris Trophy winner came back in late April and he tied for the team lead with six points in the opening round.
Karlsson had one goal and five assists against Montreal, tying him with captain and fellow Swede Daniel Alfredsson for the team lead in points.
The offensive-minded Karlsson led Ottawa with nearly 27 minutes of ice time per game in Round 1 and he is normally paired with stay-at-home defenseman Marc Methot. Methot had two goals and nine assists in 47 games during the regular season before breaking out for one goal and four helpers in five playoff tilts against Montreal.
Veteran blueliner Sergei Gonchar was second to Karlsson in ice time (23:04) against the Canadiens and also notched four assists. Gonchar usually pairs with either Chris Phillips or Jared Cowen, who each had an assist in the opening round.
Eric Gryba was suspended two games in Round 1 for delivering a big hit on Montreal's Lars Eller, but he was back on the blue line for Games 4 and 5.
Playing behind Karlsson and the D-men is goaltender Craig Anderson. The 31- year-old was a leading Vezina candidate in the early going this season before missing over a month of the season from Feb. 23-April 2 due to an ankle injury.
Anderson went 12-9-2 with a 1.69 GAA and .941 save percentage in 24 games during the regular season and his first-round numbers were stingy as well. The American netminder stopped 171-of-180 shots in five games against the Canadiens, posting a 1.80 GAA and .950 save percentage.
For his career, Anderson is 9-9 with a 2.16 GAA and .938 save percentage in 18 playoff games.
At 40 years of age, Alfredsson is the most recognizable name up front for Ottawa. The Sens' longtime captain is a valuable two-way forward who had two goals, four assists and a plus-5 rating in the opening round against Montreal.
Kyle Turris also has done a terrific job replacing Spezza as Ottawa's top centerman and the 23-year-old had three goals and two assists in the first round.
Turris leads the way for an Ottawa team stacked with talented young forwards. Like Turris, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Jakob Silfverberg, Cory Conacher and Mika Zibanejad are all 23 years old or younger and each player contributed to the series win over Montreal.
Pageau recorded a hat trick in Game 3 and finished the series with five points. Conacher also had three goals in the series, while Zibanejad added a goal and three helpers and Silfverberg notched two goals and an assist.
The Sens' forward mix also includes Milan Michalek, a veteran with goal- scoring ability, and tough guy Chris Neil.
Ottawa's scoring depth could get a big boost if Spezza is able to return in this series. Although he recently participated in a full practice for the first time since undergoing back surgery, MacLean still says Spezza is "a long ways away."
Spezza hasn't played since the fifth game of the season, but he is a proven playoff performer. The 29-year-old center has 51 points (17G, 34A) over 53 career postseason games.
Ottawa scored on 24 percent of its power-play opportunities (6-of-25) in the first round after tying for 20th in the league on the man advantage during the regular season.
After finishing first in the NHL during the regular season with an 88-percent penalty kill rate, Ottawa stopped Montreal from scoring on 16-of-19 chances (84.2 percent) in the first round.
This series pits the league's best offense against the second-ranked defense, as Pittsburgh led the NHL with 3.38 goals per game in 2013 and Ottawa was second in defense with an average of 2.08 goals surrendered each tilt.
The Penguins won all three meetings with Ottawa during the regular season. Fleury was 2-0 in those games and Vokoun also posted a victory for Pittsburgh. Anderson started all three tilts for Ottawa and was 0-2-1 with a 2.61 GAA and .909 save percentage.
Neal led Pittsburgh with three goals and four points in the season series, while Crosby added one goal and two assists. Gonchar and Alfredsson each had two assists for Ottawa.
Ottawa was able to slow down the Penguins' power play, however, as Pittsburgh scored once on 15 chances with the man advantage over the three meetings.
This will be the fourth all-time playoff series between the clubs. Ottawa won the first encounter in the 2007 conference quarterfinals, before Pittsburgh ousted the Sens from the first round in 2008 and 2010.
However, Pittsburgh's loaded roster didn't earn many style points against the Isles in the first round and the Pens will have to play a much tighter game defensively if they expect to get past the dangerous Sens.
Although Ottawa finished 27th in team offense during the regular season, a healthy Senators team averaged four goals per game in the opening round against Montreal. Only Pittsburgh had a better scoring average in Round 1, as it posted 4.17 goals per game against the Isles.
Since winning it all in 2009, Pittsburgh hasn't lived up to its perennial Stanley Cup favorite status. Some of the blame for that downturn can be blamed on Fleury's poor postseason play, but Bylsma's skaters also have shown a tendency to break down defensively in the playoffs. If that happens in this series, expect MacLean's opportunistic Sens to make life miserable for the favorites.
After surviving a tumultuous regular season, the Senators are riding a wave of momentum into the second round. It won't be a quick series, but Ottawa is primed to pull off the upset against the Penguins.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Senators in 7