For the third time in four years the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators are facing off in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Senators won the first meeting in five games during the 2006-07 season on their way to the Stanley Cup Final, while the Penguins swept the Senators in four straight games the following year on their way to the Final.
Sidney Crosby has been the Penguins' best offensive weapon this season, recording a career-best 51 goals to go with 58 assists. If past history is any indicator, he'll be seeing plenty of Ottawa's shutdown defensive pairing of Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips. During their first two postseason meetings, Crosby has tallied 13 points in nine games, including eight in the 2008 series. But it's matchup that hasn't really worked in his favor in the years since.
The Matchup: Crosby vs. Volchenkov and Phillips
Over the past two seasons Crosby has played eight regular season games against the Senators, scoring just one goal to go with six assists. A large reason for his pedestrian (by Crosby's standards) numbers is the relentless play of Volchenkov and Phillips. First, let's take a look at how Crosby has performed against them the past two years, compared to how he's performed against other defensive pairings from Ottawa.
This graphic shows only even strength situations.
Crosby has four points (all assists) on the power play over this same time period.
If you're an Ottawa fan, you have to like graphic. A lot. Not only has Crosby failed to register a point -- or many shots on goal -- when matched up against Volchenkov and Phillips, they've actually managed to each score a goal against his line. It would be in Ottawa's best interest to get these guys on the ice against him as often as humanly possible.
1) Ottawa's Penalty Kill Against Pittsburgh's Power Play
The power play has been the Achilles heel for the Penguins all season, at times looking like a talented group that is underachieving, and at other times looking completely ineffective and, well, lousy. They enter the playoffs clicking at a 17.5 percent rate, while Ottawa enters killing 84.3 percent of its penalties (tied, with Pittsburgh, for the eighth best mark in the league). The Penguins were 4-for-20 against Ottawa on the power play this season, including a 3-for-8 effort in December.
2) Ottawa Needs To Find Its Phillips and Volchenkov For Evgeni Malkin
The problem with playing the Penguins in a seven-game series (or in a single game) is that even if you find an answer for Crosby, you still have to worry about Evgeni Malkin. Not every team has an Art Ross and Conn Smythe winning player center its second line; the Penguins do (and they have Jordan Staal centering the third line).
If Volchenkov and Phillips draw the assignment of shutting down Crosby, the Senators are still going to need somebody to contain Malkin. And while he hasn't been the same force he was a year ago when he led the league in scoring (regular season and postseason) he's still an extremely dangerous player.
Goaltending an important factor in a playoff series? Shocking, I know. Marc-Andre Fleury has been excellent the past two playoff runs for the Penguins, but has been extremely inconsistent this year. Ottawa's two netminders, Brian Elliott and Pascal Leclaire, have combined to play zero playoff games at the NHL level.