The boulder that is the Pittsburgh Penguins has well and truly started rolling downhill. Now, a landslide is gathering around it.
If there were any doubts the Ottawa Senators are about to be caught up in it, they were removed Wednesday, by a 7-3 drubbing at Scotiabank Place.
Afterward, 40-year-old Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson retrieved the game puck (“For my kids,” he said) – an indication this may have been his valedictory game on home ice.
Watch: Penguins beat the Senators 7-3
“To get back into this series seriously, we had to win tonight,” Alfredsson said of the fourth game of the best-of-seven clash the Pens led 2-1 coming in. “It’s really putting us in a tough spot. With their depth and power play, it doesn’t look too good.”
For the preternaturally sunny Alfredsson to strike even a mildly fatalistic note is jarring. But what other choice does he have?
Pittsburgh’s talent-laden lineup may have had a flicker of doubt about its chances against goalie Craig Anderson, who conjured 49 saves in a double-overtime triumph last Sunday to give Game 4 new importance.
It’s safe to presume it no longer does, after swamping the Ottawa net with chance after chance.
“From their side, it’s tough to expect Anderson to make 50 saves every night,” Pens defenceman Brooks Orpik said. “We knew if we kept playing that way they couldn’t keep up … when you play that way, the best team is going to win eventually.”
The Senators did everything right Wednesday: seize the early initiative by scoring a short-handed goal (courtesy of Milan Michalek, who looked like he was shot out of a cannon as Alfredsson launched him on a breakaway), fighting back from James Neal’s tying goal for the Pens to create a 2-1 cushion through Kyle Turris.
Anderson did his best to mesmerize the Pittsburgh shooters; though they came in waves in the first period, he turned them away, often spectacularly.
Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, Neal – who hit a goal post – Brandon Sutter and Sidney Crosby, who saw four or five chances thwarted by Anderson.
“He looked big and tall and strong … there was a sense, like, ‘Okay, it might take 50,’ it might take as many shots as we can muster to break this guy,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said.
Even when the Pens struck with a pair of goals within a 40-second span early in the second – first, came Chris Kunitz, who converted a 2-on-0 opportunity; next, came Iginla, who batted home a rebound – Ottawa stormed back.
Jason Spezza rifled a gorgeous wrist shot off the corner of the post and crossbar as the Sens tried to take advantage of Tomas Vokoun, who looked more than a little shaky in the Pittsburgh net.
“I hit the post and we have a breakdown in the third period,” Spezza said with a shrug. “We’ve got to park this one after tonight.”
It will surely be easy to banish the score from their minds, it will be harder to purge memories of the ease with which it was achieved.
Though the Sens had controlled the Pens’ devastating power play in Game 3, it proved their undoing in No. 4.
With Sergei Gonchar off for high-sticking just over a minute into the third period, Malkin made a delicious cross-seam pass to teammate Kris Letang at the point.
Letang, as skilled a defenceman as there is on offer in the NHL, faked a shot and fired a diagonal pass to Crosby, whose slap shot caromed off the end boards to Neal, who shovelled it into an empty net.
It was, in a word, imperious.
It was also an emphatic statement that the Pens, heavily favoured to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup final, will not be kept down for long.
This is not a team without flaws, but it is an offensive juggernaut – the Pens have scored at least four goals in all but one playoff game this year.
Neal’s goal, his second of the night after a five-game drought, made it 4-2, breaking open what was a nip-and-tuck game.
The Pens have been expecting more from Neal, and they got it this night.
They also got quite a performance from Neal’s linemate Iginla, who contributed a second goal, on the power play, to make it 7-2. (Pascal Dupuis, with a short-handed goal, and Crosby had made it 6-2 with goals in a 31-second span.)
“It was a big game for our team to bounce back. I thought all the guys were ready. As a line we just wanted to put pressure on and get scoring chances,” Iginla said.
By the time Alfredsson scored a late power-play goal to raise the crowd – it was the 100th playoff point of his brilliant career – the result was already cemented.
Now, the Sens face the prospect of travelling to Pittsburgh for an elimination game Friday; there was a sense of inevitability as the Pens’ players and staff busies themselves for what was surely a satisfying plane ride home.
“As far as being favourites, we’re confident. But nobody relaxes. There wasn’t a lot of dwelling on the last game. There wasn’t any carryover. We talked about what to do different in the last two minutes. Then, it was done. It wasn’t an issue. It was time to move on,” Iginla said.
There’s every chance that with Wednesday’s win in hand, they will move on to their next challenge – the conference final – as early as Friday.