Tuesday, May 14, 2013
The stakes rise for Penguins, Senators
By Scott Burnside
PITTSBURGH -- It's a bit hard to get your head around it, but the start of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is relatively foreign territory for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators.
That may explain the great collective exhalation that coincided with the end of the first round for both teams.
In knocking off the New York Islanders in Game 6 on Saturday night, the Penguins -- considered by many as favorites, along with the Chicago Blackhawks, to advance to the Stanley Cup finals -- broke a two-year streak of being one-and-done in the playoffs.
The Senators, meanwhile, won their first playoff series since advancing to the 2007 Cup finals by knocking off the second-seeded Montreal Canadiens in five games.
The gap between the rounds gave both teams a chance to relish what is not an insignificant accomplishment: surviving the frenzy and chaos that always marks the first round, then looking to close the door on all that transpired in the previous two weeks and open a new door, one that will allow them to continue along the Cup path.
"The biggest thing in going from the first round to the second round, in my experience, is the first round there's 16 teams, and it's so physical and there's such an overwhelming amount of games," said Ottawa coach Paul MacLean, who has a long history as a player and assistant coach with such things. "You get to watch all of that, and there's so much physicality that I think everyone kind of gets hyped up.
"Once you get through the first round, I think everyone takes a deep breath and things quiet down a little bit more around the league, because now there's only eight teams that are playing. I think it gives the players actually a sense of relief that they got through the first round, and now it's easier to get their focus back on the task at hand."
Certainly there was a sense of relief among the Penguins, who were the second-best team in their series against the Islanders for long stretches.
"It's been a while since we got out of the first round here," Pittsburgh forward Craig Adams said Tuesday morning. "It was a relief, I'll tell you that.
"We know there's a lot of things we can do better, and now you sort of hit the reset button. [We're] playing a different team, a different kind of team that will challenge you in different ways, so it's exciting."
Brenden Morrow enjoyed his first series victory as a Penguin and the first for him since 2008, when he was captain of the Dallas Stars. He thinks that for each player the transition from one round to another means something different or is approached in a different manner.
"I think each individual takes out of it different things," Morrow said. "Some people probably take the positives from it, the overtime goals and how they played in the series previous, and some guys totally wipe it clean. So I think everyone does it a little different. But what happened in the past doesn't carry into the future, unless it's something like [team] confidence or personal confidence, or something like that."
The Senators were underdogs in the first round and will be in the second round as well. But the gap between "favorite" and "underdog" narrows appreciably as time passes in the postseason.
It is so with an Ottawa team that is considered by many a legitimate threat to unseat the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
"We were really happy with making the playoffs," said captain Daniel Alfredsson, one of three players left from the 2007 Senators team that advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. "We were really happy with moving past the first round, but we're not satisfied.
"We know we're up against a tough opponent, but we've kind of overcome odds throughout the year, and that's been our belief, that we can beat anybody."
Zack Smith is part of a core of young Senators who have been asked to take on a bigger role this season, especially with injuries to key personnel like Jason Spezza (who did not make the trip to Pittsburgh to start the series), Milan Michalek and defenseman Erik Karlsson.
Smith, 25, conceded there might have been a moment or two in the first round when some players examined the seedings or looked at the regular-season standings and wondered whether the Canadiens really were the better team. Not now.
"Once you get past that, you know you can beat teams that are supposedly better than you are or are higher in the standings," said Smith, who has 18 career playoff games to his credit. "Once you get past the first round, I think all teams kind of pick up a little bit more steam and have a little more confidence.
"And after that, I mean, it's anybody's game at that point. I think L.A. showed that last year."
If the transition from one round to the next is really about writing a different script on a different piece of parchment, the challenge is to write the story your way. That challenge will be met in part Tuesday night, when the first round will truly become a thing of the past.
"The emotion of the first round, the emotion of playoff hockey ... we've all seen it in the last 24 hours, but it's in every series," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said, referencing the Toronto Maple Leafs' epic collapse in the third period and overtime of Game 7 of their first-round series against the Boston Bruins.
"It's now a completely different situation. Momentum's not there, there's not a carryover from game to game with a new opponent. You're not really taking anything with you from how you played or how [the previous series] unfolded, and the same applies for Ottawa in this series. They're not taking anything from Montreal with them."