The top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins will try to get off to a strong start in the Eastern Conference semifinals, as they host the Ottawa Senators in Tuesday's Game 1 at CONSOL Energy Center.
Although the Penguins cruised to the top spot in the East with a 36-12-0 record in the regular season, the Senators enter this best-of-seven series as an extremely dangerous seventh seed. Ottawa is coming off beating second- seeded Montreal in five games during the opening round and Paul MacLean's squad is eyeing another upset in Round 2.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, received a tougher than expected test from the eighth- seeded New York Islanders in the conference quarterfinals. The Penguins posted two shutouts against the Isles, but also surrendered 17 goals over the remaining four games.
After outlasting the Isles in six games, the Pens find themselves in the second round for the first time since 2010, the year after Pittsburgh claimed its third Stanley Cup title. The club may have suffered a third straight first-round exit if it wasn't for a goaltender change during the conference quarters.
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. After posting a shutout in Game 1, Fleury struggled mightily and allowed 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.
Not surprisingly, Bylsma is sticking with Vokoun, who is 5-8 with a 2.30 GAA in 13 career playoff games. The Czech will start Game 1, while Fleury begins the second round on the bench.
"Whatever happens, it's all about the team," said Fleury. "I've been a part of this team for a long time and I want this team to do good. This organization has been great. So if I'm in the net or on the bench, I want this team to win. That's the bottom line."
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.
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.
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.
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, who had two goals and four assists.
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.
Ottawa's scoring depth could get a big boost if Spezza is able to return in this series. He recently participated in a full practice for the first time since undergoing back surgery. Spezza hasn't played since the fifth game of the season, but he is a proven playoff performer and could be ready to go as early as Game 3. 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.
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.
Game 2 of this series is scheduled for Friday in Pittsburgh.