PITTSBURGH – When the Pittsburgh Penguins opened the NHL playoffs in Ottawa a year ago, Marc-Andre Fleury got pumped for six goals and Evgeni Malkin was invisible as the Senators jumped out to a series lead they would never relinquish.
That’s ancient history.
Fleury stopped 26 shots Wednesday night for his first career shutout in the NHL playoffs and Malkin scored his first career playoff goal in a three-point night as the Penguins beat the Senators 4-0 in a game they controlled from beginning to end.
“We’re a more mature team than a year ago,” said Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby. “We’re much different and improved from last year and I think we proved that tonight.”
The old goat Gary Roberts had two goals and Peter Sykora also scored as the second-seeded Penguins took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final, looking nothing like the nervous young outfit that got pounded 6-3 by these same Senators in Game 1 of their first-round series last spring.
Fleury, who has been rock solid since coming back from injury in late February, looked confident in his net. He was rarely out of position and his rebound control was excellent.
“For the last 15 games he’s been the best goalie in the National Hockey League so I am not surprised,” said Pens head coach Michel Therrien.
Crosby was held pointless Wednesday night, but even that didn’t matter since no one on the Senators scored either.
“It was a good team effort,” said Therrien. “It was a great way to start the series.”
Slumping badly to end the regular season and missing key players Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher through injury, seventh-seeded Ottawa came out flat and never really threatened Wednesday night in what must have been a frightful warning to Senators head coach Bryan Murray. Has his team completely lost its confidence?
“Obviously we got outplayed,” said Murray, whose team got outshot 35-26. “We didn’t get a lot of scoring chances. A few, but not many.”
The Senators can get right back in the series with a win Friday night in Game 2 here at Mellon Arena (7 p.m. ET).
“We know they’ve got a lot left in the tank so we’ll have to be as good if not better in Game 2,” cautioned Roberts.
Hopefully for Senators fans, they’ll avoid Wednesday’s disastrous start, as the home side set the tone early. Fifty seconds into the game, star Ottawa winger Dany Heatley was flattened by a thunderous bodycheck from Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik in the Pittsburgh end. The play then carried into the Ottawa zone, where eventually Roberts backhanded a loose puck in the slot past Martin Gerber for a 1-0 lead just 1:08 into the game. A nightmarish start for the visitors indeed.
“That was a big goal by Robs,” said Crosby. “It gave us momentum.”
For the 41-year-old Roberts, it was only his second game after missing three months with a broken leg.
“Hopefully I’ll feel as good tomorrow as I do right now,” said Roberts, who has scored 14 of his 32 career playoff goals against Ottawa.
The lead was doubled when Sykora brilliantly finished a 2-on-1 break with Malkin, his one-timer sneaking past Gerber at 12:28 and 17,132 fans at a soldout Mellon Arena screamed their approval. The play began with a bad pinch by Senators defenceman Mike Commodore, who got caught at the Penguins blue-line and allowed Malkin and Sykora to sprint away.
Ottawa lost another key player midway through the second period. Defenceman Anton Volchenkov a trail of blood on the ice after it appeared Malkin’s slap shot on a Pittsburgh power play struck him in the face. Ottawa’s best shot blocker suffered what the club called a head laceration and did not return.
“He’s sore but hopefully should be ok tomorrow,” said Murray.
The Senators had two glorious chances to get back into the game, handed a 5-on-3 power play for 57 seconds in the second period and another two-man advantage for 52 seconds early in the third period. They didn’t come close to scoring on either power play, registering two non-threatening shots on goal. That was the game.
“Our power play killed us,” said Senators centre Jason Spezza, whose team went 0-for-7 with the man advantage.
Malkin scored with 6:02 left in the third period, snapping a rolling puck past Gerber. Roberts added an insurance goal on the power play with 1:35 left to play.
Ottawa’s frustration boiled over with 3:25 to go when defenceman Wade Redden got into a pushing match with Crosby, which immediately got Redden the attention of Ryan Whitney. The Penguins blue-liner pounded Redden in a one-side fight that neatly summed up the evening.
“We’re a team, we stick together,” said Crosby. “That was a great job at the end.”
Therrien was also happy to see Whitney stick up for his captain.
“It’s about team spirit,” said Therrien. “There’s good team chemistry with these guys. (Whitney) stepped in and did the right thing.”
Notes – Alfredsson (knee), as expected, was not in the lineup. There are rumblings he might be back mid-series but head coach Bryan Murray didn’t sound optimistic about those chances. “I wouldn’t think they’re very good,” Murray said after the pre-game skate Wednesday. “He’s trying, he rode the bike this morning, but he’s a ways away.” It’s playoff time, so one never knows what’s really going on with injuries. Fisher (knee) and forward Chris Kelly (leg) also remained out … The Penguins have no injury concerns.