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PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins spent the first two rounds of the playoffs engaging in high-stakes games of rope-a-dope with Columbus and Washington, absorbing some hits, avoiding others and counterpunching brilliantly to get halfway to a second straight Stanley Cup.
A very different challenge awaits in the Eastern Conference final in what amounts to the hockey equivalent of switching from boxing to MMA.
The Ottawa Senators dominated Boston then rallied by the New York Rangers on the legs of seemingly tireless defenseman Erik Karlsson, the inspirational play of goaltender Craig Anderson and a neutral zone trap designed to frustrate and suffocate opponents in equal measure.
"We can't make any bold plays in (the middle of the ice)," Pittsburgh forward Patric Hornqvist said. "That's exactly what they want."
Rather than pound away like the Blue Jackets and Capitals tried to do against the Penguins, Ottawa would rather get in Pittsburgh's head. The Senators' defense is designed to force the Penguins and their waves of highly skilled playmakers into making sloppy mistakes.
"They're pretty stingy," Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby said. "We've got to make good decisions."
The Senators are well aware they're not supposed to be here. A year ago they didn't even make the playoffs. Now they're in the NHL's final four for the first time in a decade and aren't being given much of a chance against the dynamic Cup champions, who played their best game of the postseason in a Game 7 victory over the Capitals.
"No one's picking us for sure," Ottawa forward Clarke MacArthur said.
That's fine by the Senators. They understand they're playing with house money. Just don't mistake the joy that spilled onto the ice after beating the Rangers in six games with satisfaction. They're not simply happy to be here.
"We're very proud of the work that we've done but we've got lots left," Ottawa defenseman Dion Phaneuf said.
Then again, so do the Penguins. The team that looked drained while getting booed on home ice in a Game 6 loss to Washington zoomed past the Capitals in Game 7 , a coolly efficient 2-0 victory that served as a three-period clinic on how to close out a series.
Less than 72 hours later, they'll begin the next step in becoming the first team in nearly 20 years to repeat with the opener on Saturday night. It's an opportunity that provides all the adrenaline necessary to overcome any sort of physical or emotional fatigue.
"(In Game 7) we had a level of desperation we missed in a couple games prior, we need to keep that," Crosby said. "This Game 1 is important, we've got to turn the page and start off the right way."
Technically, Karlsson is playing with a pair of hairline fractures in his left heel. It's hardly slowed him down. Karlsson is averaging nearly 29 minutes of ice time in the playoffs and his 13 points (two goals, 11 assists) lead the team.
"He's unreal to watch," Pittsburgh defenseman Justin Schultz said. "The way he skates and the vision he has, it's really impressive. We'll try to take it away this series as best we can."
The Penguins beat Washington for the ninth time in 10 playoff meetings behind the spectacular play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Rendered a well-compensated backup at midseason, the starting job is Fleury's even with Matt Murray fully recovered from a lower-body injury suffered during warmups before Game 1 of the Columbus series.
"I think Marc deserves the opportunity to play," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. "He's played so well for us and he's really at the top of his game."
The Senators won two of the three regular season meetings, though their 2-1 shootout victory on March 23 was marred by a slash from Crosby on defenseman Marc Methot left the pinky finger on Methot's left hand mangled, forcing him to miss 10 games. Methot insisted he won't be looking for payback. There's too much at stake.
"Right now it's about Pittsburgh and Ottawa, our team against their team," Methot said. "We're going to have to play at the level we're capable of."
Ottawa had its own unique goaltending situation during the season, with Craig Anderson and Mike Condon splitting duties during a difficult year that saw Anderson take time off to be with his wife Nicholle as she undergoes treatment for throat cancer. Nicholle is in Florida and will undergo a PET scan later this month to gauge her progress. Meanwhile, her husband and his upstart team are drawing strength from her fight.
"We've faced so much adversity," Ottawa general manager Pierre Dorion said. "Guys have been so resilient this year. We're a hockey club but we're also a family."
The Penguins will likely start the series without defenseman Trevor Daley (lower body). Carl Hagelin is also dealing with a lower-body injury that forced him to sit out Game 7 against Washington. The Senators should have everyone available except defenseman Mark Borowiecki, whose lower-body injury is taking longer than expected to heal.
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