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Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby,c entre, celebrates his goal Sunday with teammates Kris Letang, left, and Matt Cooke during the second period of Game 3 of their NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final against the Ottawa Senators. (BLAIR GABLE)
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby,c entre, celebrates his goal Sunday with teammates Kris Letang, left, and Matt Cooke during the second period of Game 3 of their NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final against the Ottawa Senators. (BLAIR GABLE)

Pens elite too much for Senators Add to ...

Heaven knows, the Ottawa Senators have tried just about everything imaginable to bring a little inspiration.

One year it was the little Buddha statue Tom Chorske carried around in his shaving kit; another time the toilet that Bruce Gardiner flushed the blade of his stick in before each game.

Last night at Scotiabank Place, it was comedian Rick Mercer coming on the scoreboard to shout: "Let's hear it for the Ontario team that doesn't suck."

All worked, to a degree - but never enough. And this night's 4-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 of their opening series of the Stanley Cup playoffs would be no different.

Mercer's call to arms did indeed pick up a Stanley Cup playoff game that had sagged badly and immediately after the Pittsburgh Penguins scored on their very first shot of the match.

Barely a minute in and it seemed all the good gained in coming home from Pittsburgh with a split, one game apiece, was lost.

Alex Ponikarovsky, who had not scored in the series, found himself standing with the puck to the right side of the Ottawa net with no one seeming much interested in checking him. So he shot and the puck went in behind Ottawa netminder Brian Elliott.

"It was a great shot," said Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin. It wasn't. It was a weak goal.

"It's never over when a goal happens that early in the game," added Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-André Fleury, who should know - given that he allowed an Ottawa goal 18 seconds into Game 2 and still his Penguins still managed to come back and win.

The Mercer interlude seemed to give the sellout crowd of 20,119 energy and bring the Senators back to some semblance of life. They survived two Pittsburgh power plays and, at least until the end of the second period, effectively checked the one Penguin who had virtually single-handedly tied the series at one each on Friday night: Sidney Crosby.

With this Canadian capital crowd booing the Canadian Olympic hero every time he came within radar pickup of the puck, the Senators - in particular defencemen Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov - squeezed Crosby out of the play time and time again through the first two periods.

"We knew it was going to be tough," said Crosby.

Tough, as well, for Ottawa's three missing Big Guns - Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Mike Fisher - who had entered this third match with a cumulative total of seven shots and no goals whatsoever.

Earlier in the day, Ottawa coach Cory Clouston had begged his players "to be a little bit better" and specifically noted the number of times his stars, Spezza and Alfredsson, had shot pucks that missed the Pittsburgh net entirely.

The message got through - at least to Fisher. Early in a second-period Ottawa power play, Senators forward Peter Regin slipped a puck out from back of the Pittsburgh net and Fisher put the puck past Fleury's glove.

It seemed for stretches that the Senators had found their game (thanks to Mercer?), only to have that advantage lost when Malkin scored a second bad goal on Elliott, one in which first the defence messed up and then Elliott flubbed a poke check.

With only seven shots on Ottawa's net, Pittsburgh had two goals.

Then, in the dying minute of the second, with Ottawa shorthanded thanks to a needless slashing penalty taken by defenceman Erik Karlsson, Crosby took the puck, held it as three Ottawa defenders held a panel discussion on what he might do with it, and calmly lifted it into the net.

"I just tried to take it along the front of the net," Crosby said, as if he had never anticipated the open net that followed.

Pittsburgh's Bill Guerin made it 4-1 early in the third period when, with Crosby drawing an assist, Guerin was sent in alone on Elliott, pulled the goaltender and calmly deposited the puck in the back of the net.

"I was kind of open," Guerin deadpanned.

Four goals on 17 shots - and this morning the monthly Ottawa goaltending debate is back in full force.

Ironically, only moments before Guerin scored so easily, Fleury had made a heart-stopping stab save on a puck that seemed in need of a curling broom to get it across the line.

"That's what he's there for," Crosby chuckled.

Had that puck gone in, or had an earlier "goal" by Regin - once again Ottawa's best player - not been ruled kicked in, the outcome might have been different.

As it was, Ottawa did bring the score to 4-2 on a power play when Matt Cullen got his first goal of the playoffs by ripping a hard wrist shot over the left shoulder of Fleury.

The game, however, was already lost, the goal the Ottawa equivalent of an NDP moral victory.

"We know there's a lot of hockey left," said Crosby.

But not, Ottawa Senators must surely realize after this, a lot of time.

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