Penguins put Senators in black hole without stars

OTTAWA -- They aren't likely to make a movie of this one, but if they did, the
Pittsburgh Penguins' 4-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators on Monday night might well be called "The Pluggers Ball."

On a night when the Senators played every card available, including trotting out a still obviously injured Daniel Alfredsson, the Penguins moved to within a win of making the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001. They did so by slowly but surely squeezing the life out of the Senators.

It may not have been a thing of beauty, but it sure played well in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

That's Tyler Kennedy's hometown. Kennedy, listed generously, in fact really generously, at 5-foot-11, earned his first-ever playoff point when he sent a crisp, cross-ice pass that greeted Jordan Staal at the Ottawa net and gave the Penguins a 3-1 lead just 1:30 into the third period.

That's a score sheet worth keeping.

"Hopefully they'll pick up a frame or something like that," said Kennedy, the 99th pick in the 2004 draft.

It was a night of many firsts, and we don't just mean Sidney Crosby's first goal of the playoffs (ho-hum) or Marian Hossa's first postseason marker as a Penguin (finally). Those guys were going to score; it was just a matter of time.

But what do you think the Las Vegas odds were that Kennedy, who had played in just 55 NHL games before the start of the playoffs, would pick up a point? Or that
Max Talbot would score his first-ever playoff goal just 4:28 after Nick Foligno had given the Senators their first lead of the series early in the second period?

Long. Very long in fact.

And the points are nice, for sure.

It's something tangible their girlfriends and wives and grannies can point to with pride (and maybe even frame).

But the points serve a deeper purpose. They have a tendency to demoralize an opponent. If (fill in the name of your favorite plugger here) can score or set up a scoring play, what chance do we have when Crosby, Hossa, Evgeni Malkin, et al get going?

Kennedy, playing with Staal and Jarkko Ruutu, helped form the Penguins' best forward line for most of the night. During the second period, they fore checked the Senators relentlessly, controlling the puck on almost every shift. They all factored into the third goal, with Ruutu drawing an assist for his first point of the postseason.

Both Kennedy and Staal were rewarded with power-play time, a powerful incentive on a team that boasts so many established NHL stars. It is the ultimate carrot from coach Michel Therrien.

"It's nice to be rewarded," said Kennedy, who takes nothing for granted.

"I'm just trying to stay in the lineup right now, " he admitted.

The Staal goal was a killer as far as the Sens were concerned.

The game -- a must-win for Ottawa given that historically it is nigh on impossible for teams to erase a 3-0 lead in the playoffs -- had been tough and even. Scrums formed after many plays. And through two periods the game was 1-1.

But 12 seconds into the third, Crosby went through Antoine Vermette and burst down the left side, beating Martin Gerber for a 2-1 lead.

Then, 1:18 later, Kennedy found Staal, and the game and the series for all intents and purposes was over.

"You need everyone, and in the playoffs is where you see it the most," Crosby said. "Those are the guys who are going to make the difference in games. It's not the guys you usually see putting up points in the regular season, for sure, [but] they're going to be there when it counts.

"The way they play, the momentum they create, the penalties they draw, all those little details are things that make a huge difference in a game that's so close, especially in the playoffs."

Any hopes the Senators might have had of getting back in the game evaporated when Cory Stillman and Dany Heatley were both whistled for penalties on the same play while Ottawa was on the power play with less than seven minutes to play.

Heatley's penalty was a four-minute double-minor for high sticking Staal in the Penguins' zone, and he was in the box when Hossa scored to make the score 4-1.

That the Penguins would win this type of game to go up 3-0 bucks a trend that has appeared early in this playoff year. In the past two days Montreal, the
New York Rangers and Detroit could not expand on 2-0 series leads and fell to Boston, New Jersey and Nashville (respectively) when they were essentially outworked or outplugged by teams with their backs against the wall.

On Monday night, the Penguins showed they can, indeed, play it any way.
After being surrounded by cameras and reporters, Talbot described the excitement of going to the bench and having guys like Crosby and Malkin congratulate him on his big goal.

"It's definitely rewarding. You want to be that guy," Talbot said.
"It's a role that changes momentum," he said. "We all know what to do."

The Senators had no answer for the Penguins' big guns in Pittsburgh. On Monday, they showed they have no answer for the Penguins' little guns, either.

The return of Alfredsson to the lineup had Ottawa fans jazzed to start the game, but it was clear he was not anywhere near top speed. He played 17:08 but rarely ventured into any high-traffic areas, although he did have a couple of decent scoring chances early in the game.

But head coach Bryan Murray was effusive in his praise.

"It's unbelievable," he said. "I was told probably six weeks minimum when he was first injured in Toronto. He came to me this morning and asked about playing. And I said, 'Think about it; we'll talk about it. But I don't want you to play if it's going to be a long-term damage to you.' He came back this afternoon and he said he wanted to play. I didn't use him as much. Obviously he wasn't at full speed, you can see that."

Murray warned that if anyone dared question the captain's heart or courage down the road, he wouldn't be very happy.

"If anyone ever questions Daniel Alfredsson's character or anything else again, I think I might approach them somehow in an unkind manner -- let's put it that way," Murray said.

"The guy is nothing but character."

For the Senators, who have now been outscored 13-4 in the series, Alfredsson's return stands as the high point for the team.

Say goodnight, Irene.

Game notes
Gary Roberts did not play in Game 3 after tweaking a groin. He skated Monday morning but was unable to go. Adam Hall took Roberts' place in the Penguins' lineup.