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Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (R) makes a last second save during the third period of Game 3 of their NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final hockey game against the Ottawa Senators in Ottawa April 18, 2010. (POOL/REUTERS)
Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (R) makes a last second save during the third period of Game 3 of their NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final hockey game against the Ottawa Senators in Ottawa April 18, 2010. (POOL/REUTERS)

ROY MacGREGOR

Penguins have the big guns Add to ...

He doesn't like to be put on a pedestal.

At least not for talking to the likes of those who still work with pen and paper.

The television interviews over, Sidney Crosby steps down from the makeshift podium and, as usual, tries to be diplomatic when discussing the opposition - in this case the Ottawa Senators, who will meet his Pittsburgh Penguins here Tuesday night in Game 4, with the Penguins up two games to one in their best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoff series.

"I don't think," he said, "there's a big difference between the teams."

Surely there is a point where diplomacy simply becomes silly. There has been a vast difference so far, and he has been it. He single-handedly willed his team to come back and win Game 2 after falling at home in their first meeting with Ottawa. He scored the game-winning goal in Game 3. He leads all scorers with seven points and, it seems, he is actually getting stronger each passing game.

It is mind-boggling to think that the captain who raised the Stanley Cup last year is still only 22 years old. He once thought he had to get stronger, so he got stronger. He thought he needed to shoot more to score, so he shot more and scored more, tying for the NHL league this past regular season with 51 goals. He can, it seems, force himself to do anything but grow a proper playoff beard.

"This is it!" he said, rubbing what appears to be a pepper spill on one cheek.

"I'm trying."

So, too, are the Senators - trying their best but not getting to where they need to go and, judging by some of that third-period booing on Sunday evening, where their fans expect them to go.

This being a town so insecure it can't decide whether Parliament should sit or stand, half or more of Ottawa's fans seem already to have bailed on their sometimes beloveds, at least so far as the bar-talk and radio-talk goes.

Given that this is only Game 4, it is somewhat reminiscent of what Scotty Bowman felt many years ago when his post-expansion St. Louis Blues found themselves facing the dynasty Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs. One of the Habs officials gave him a pat on the back and said there was no disgrace in going down to a team as mighty as Les Glorieux.

"What burned me," he said, "was we hadn't even played the fourth game yet."

It would take the Senators only one victory to tie this series. And yet, there is a feeling that the Senators have proved weaker in each game, winning the first, almost winning the second, not a chance of winning the third.

Goaltender Brian Elliott's save percentage has fallen to a level of concern, .868, and the team's two stalwart scorers, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, have yet to score a goal. Alfredsson, some suspect, is injured. Spezza, most believe, is not - and was roundly booed in the third period of Game 3 for blind passes.

Elliott, of course, is the greater concern, as it invariably comes down to goaltending in the playoffs - proof, surely, that the position's importance has grown rather out of proportion to the team game it is intended to be but a part of - and Elliott, notoriously streaky, is feared to be streaking in the wrong direction.

"A little inconsistent," Ottawa coach Cory Clouston said Monday of Elliott's performance.

"He needs to bring his 'A' game."

So, too, do all the Senators, as the defending-champion Penguins seem to moving quickly into "A-plus" territory.

"We've bounced back from bad games, bad stretches," Elliott said. "We know the grass is green on the other side."

They just have to get there, of course, and blocking that route is Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-André Fleury, who has also been spotty, physical defenders such as Brooks Orpik and the team's two superstars, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who are not only scoring the necessary points but making the essential checks.

Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma claimed Monday that Crosby and Malkin have become so skilled defensively that, "they could win the Selke if that's the trophy they wanted to win." Both have won the Art Ross Trophy as the league's top scorer; the Selke is awarded annually to the game's best defensive forward.

On Ottawa's side, only one forward can be said to have elevated his game, and that is Peter Regin, a 24-year-old Dane who has slowly worked his way from the minors to the first line and has absolutely shone this series.

But one such story is not going to be enough.

If the Ottawa Senators are going to match the defending champions, Alfredsson and Spezza are going to have to become Regin-like and play at a level not seen so far.

Spezza, for one, thinks it entirely possible: "It's not that big a hole - it's only one game."

But a game, all the same, against one player who has undeniably been the difference between the two teams.

"We've got to make it more difficult for him," Clouston said.

He has already made it more difficult for them.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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