PITTSBURGH (Sports Network) - The defending Stanley Cup champions will begin another run at a title tonight when the Pittsburgh Penguins welcome the Ottawa Senators for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Mellon Arena.
The fourth-seeded Penguins enter this postseason with a chance at becoming the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since Detroit won it all in the spring of 1997 and '98. Prior to that run by the Red Wings, Pittsburgh was the last club to repeat as champs in 1991 and '92.
Although the Penguins are the same team as last year in many ways, the biggest difference has to be captain Sidney Crosby's emergence as a goal-scorer. The 22-year-old turned in his first 50-goal season as a pro, potting 51 goals to tie Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos for the league lead. Crosby also tied Washington's Alex Ovechkin for second in the NHL with 109 points.
Crosby has been a clutch performer throughout his brief but spectacular career. He has tallied 62 points (24 goals, 38 assists) in 49 career playoff games and added to his legacy by scoring the overtime game-winner for Team Canada in the Olympic gold medal game back in February.
While Crosby added a dimension to his game, Pittsburgh's other superstar center, Evgeni Malkin, suffered through a frustrating regular season. Last year's Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP, Malkin missed 15 games due to injury in 2009-10 and posted career-lows in goals (28), assists (49) and points (77), and finished the season with a minus-six rating.
But, the Russian finished strong to close out the campaign, notching five goals and three assists over his final five games of the season. The Penguins hope that is a sign Malkin is close to returning to the form he displayed last year in the postseason, when he led all skaters with 36 points on 14 goals and 22 assists.
With Crosby and Malkin anchoring the top two lines and fellow center Jordan Staal playing the role of stopper on the third unit, Pittsburgh matches up better than any other team down the middle.
Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is often lost in the shuffle due to the deserved attention paid to the Penguins' offensive superstars, but the 25- year-old backstop has proved his worth in postseason time and time again. In 49 career playoff games, Fleury has posted a 31-18 record to go with a solid 2.45 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage.
Fleury was inconsistent at times during the 2009-10 campaign, posting a save percentage of .905 and a 2.65 GAA to go with a 37-21-6 record. However, the Quebec native has a knack for stepping up in the playoffs when needed most.
Meanwhile, Ottawa is back in the postseason for the 12th time in 13 seasons after missing out on the playoffs last year. Heading into the 2009-10 campaign a trip back to the NHL's second season was anything but set in stone.
And Ottawa indeed appeared to be headed for another year out of the playoffs in mid-January when it was just 22-21-4. That's when the club ripped off a team-record 11 straight wins to not only get themselves into the postseason race, but also challenge eventual Northeast champion Buffalo for the division crown.
All told the fifth-seeded Senators posted a 22-11-2 record over the final 35 games to get back to the postseason tournament. Getting past the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round, however, is another story altogether.
The biggest change for Ottawa this year was the emergence of goaltender Brian Elliott as the main man between the pipes. Elliott anchored the Sens' record winning streak and finished the season with a 29-18-4 record along with a respectable GAA (2.57) and save percentage (.909). Neither Elliott nor his backup Pascal Leclaire have ever played in a Stanley Cup playoff game.
On offense, winger Dany Heatley may be gone but his former linemates, centerman Jason Spezza and team captain Daniel Alfredsson, are still manning the top line for Ottawa. However, Alfredsson, 37, showed signs of aging this year and Spezza had a down year while missing 22 games due to injury.
Alfredsson matched his lowest point total (71) since 2001-02 and also scored just 20 goals, marking his worst output since scoring 11 times during the 1998-99 campaign. Meanwhile, Spezza continued the slide from his career year of 2007-08. The 26-year-old had 34 goals and 92 points two years ago, then posted 32 goals and 73 points last season before notching 57 points (23g, 34a) in his injury-shortened year this season. Spezza is healthy now and has been a solid playoff performer throughout his career, posting 39 points (13g, 26a) in 40 games.
However, while Alfredsson and Spezza's production dropped off, second-line center Mike Fisher notched personal bests in both goals (25) and assists (28).
Ottawa's biggest offseason acquisition turned out to be winger Milan Michalek, who came from San Jose as part of the Heatley trade. Michalek was third on the team with 22 goals in 66 games during his first year with the Sens.
However, the Sens will not have their highest-profile summer acquisition for the playoffs as veteran winger Alex Kovalev was lost for the season on April 8 with a torn ACL. The skilled Russian was signed to a two-year, $10 million deal in the offseason and although he was inconsistent for much of the season, Kovalev was still Ottawa's fourth-leading scorer this year with 49 points (18g, 31a).
The Senators have to deal with an even bigger injury problem on defense as Filip Kuba could miss the entire postseason after undergoing back surgery. Kuba led Ottawa's blue line in points (28) and was also the team's leader in time-on-ice per game, averaging 22 minutes, 51 seconds per contest.
The Kuba injury will make the tough job of stopping Crosby and Malkin's lines even tougher. Ottawa's top-four defensemen for this series figure to be Anton Volchenkov, Chris Phillips, Erik Karlsson and Andy Sutton.
The Senators and Penguins teams split four games during an up-and-down season series. Pittsburgh outscored the Senators, 12-3, in its two victories while Ottawa had a combined 10-3 edge in goals in its wins.
Judging from the season series, the Senators need to do a better job of containing Malkin, who had five goals in four games against Ottawa. Conversely, Crosby would like to improve upon the three assists he managed in his four tests against the Sens this year.
Elliott was 1-0 with a 2.25 GAA in two games against the Pens, while Fleury struggled to a 2-2 mark and a 2.90 GAA in four outings versus Ottawa.
These clubs never met in the playoffs prior to 2007, but this marks the third time in four seasons that the Pens and Sens will face off in the postseason. Ottawa ousted the Penguins in five games during the opening round of the playoffs in 2007, but Pittsburgh exacted revenge with a sweep in the conference quarterfinals the following spring.
Game 2 of this best-of-seven series is scheduled for Friday night in Pittsburgh.