PITTSBURGH – The celebration, at least by the typically all-business standards of the Pittsburgh Penguins, appeared a little over the top.
The second Brooks Orpik’s slapshot ripped into the back of the net 7:49 into overtime last Saturday to give the Penguins a 4-3 overtime win and a first-round playoff series victory over the better-than-advertised New York Islanders, Orpik’s teammates spilled over the boards and sprinted toward the veteran defenseman like kids running after the bell rings on the final day of school.
For a team used to success this time of year, it appeared a little out of character.
Then again, it’s been awhile. The first goal in Orpik’s 78 career playoff games propelled the Penguins into the second round starting today against Ottawa while easing some of the pain of early postseason exits in 2011 and 2012.
“I know a lot of people are making a big deal out of that, trying to connect it to the last couple years,” Orpik said. “I don’t know, maybe it was built up in some people.”
Just not, Orpik insists, the guys in the Pittsburgh dressing room.
“Half the guys in this room weren’t here the last couple years,” he said. “This group that’s right here is 1-0 in the playoffs as far as I see it. Hopefully our confidence is just building off the first round.”
The Penguins should feel confident – and a bit fortunate – to escape the relentless Islanders. New York dominated for long stretches in the series, using its speed to fluster Pittsburgh’s talented but sometimes plodding roster of veterans. Though the Penguins never trailed, they were seemingly never really in control over the final five games.
They advanced anyway after a well-timed goaltender switch from struggling Marc-Andre Fleury to backup Tomas Vokoun, who fought off the pesky Islanders in Games 5 and 6.
Now Vokoun or Fleury – coach Dan Bylsma isn’t saying who will start Game 1 – will face an entirely different product in the Senators, owners one of the NHL’s stingiest defenses with one major axe to grind.
Pittsburgh knocked Ottawa out of the playoffs fairly easily in 2008 and 2010, though both clubs believe it is ancient history.
“I think any playoff matchup, I would consider a rivalry,” Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. “That’s kind of typical in the playoffs for anything; it kind of develops as the playoffs go on. With the history with them I’m sure there’s a little extra there but I think at this point you want every game just as much as you would against any, I guess, ‘rival’ you could say.”
More pressing is a simmering feud between the Senators and Penguins winger/part-time instigator Matt Cooke.
Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk labeled Cooke “a goon” after Cooke’s skate slashed the Achilles tendon of Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson Feb. 13. Though initially ruled out for the rest of the season, Karlsson returned 10 weeks later and collected a goal and five assists in Ottawa’s five-game romp over Montreal in the opening round of the playoffs.
Cooke insists the slash was an accident brought on by two players mucking in the corner for the puck and hasn’t given it much thought over the last three months. The team’s last meeting – a 3-1 Pittsburgh win on April 22 – passed without incident. While maintaining his innocence, Cooke has no problem if the Senators search for retribution sometime over the next two weeks.
“I’ve always approached the games that if teams are thinking about me and worrying about me, they’re not focusing on what they have to do,” Cooke said.
Ottawa center Zack Smith allowed the incident is “still on people’s minds” but is not a focal point for a team trying to reach the conference finals for the third time in franchise history.
“We’ll be aware of when he’s on the ice as we know what he has done in his past,” Smith said. “So you just have to be aware when he’s finishing his checks.”
Something few teams in the NHL do better than the Senators. Ottawa’s disciplined attack is built on being physical in front of its own net and counterpunching. The Senators allowed just 104 goals all season – the second-lowest total in the league – and surrendered just nine in five games against the Canadiens.
Ottawa’s success comes from understanding what it can and cannot do. The Senators try to frustrate opponents by taking away space in their zone and rely heavily on defensemen like Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar to quarterback the offense from the blue line.
That can leave a very thin margin for error. The Senators had a plus-12 goal differential this season, compared to Pittsburgh’s plus-46. If Ottawa tries to make Pittsburgh’s dynamic playmaking, the series could be over quickly.
“If we start getting off the same page and doing our own thing they’ll start to burn you,” Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson said. “But if we stick together and stay on the same system and play on the same page we should be able to limit the number of opportunities we give up.”
It might be the only way to hang with the Penguins now that they’re unshackled from the pressure of getting out of the first round.
“We started with 30 (teams) then 16 and now we’re down to eight,” Bylsma said. “And now we’re moving on focusing on winning the next four.”