PITTSBURGH – Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson isn’t quite ready for the traditional season-ending handshake.
Yet he knows if the Senators can’t find a way to slow down slow down the Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s coming soon.
The Penguins grabbed a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals with a 7-3 rout Wednesday night, leading Alfredsson to offer Ottawa “probably” can’t win three straight.
Alfredsson insists he wasn’t surrendering, just acknowledging his team’s increasingly slender odds heading into Game 5 today in Pittsburgh.
“It sounds like I had given up (from what I hear),” Alfredsson said. “If you ask anyone, and they look at our series, I don’t think there’s too many people that would pick us right now and that’s what I meant.”
The Penguins moved within a game of a berth in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2009 by erupting for four goals in the third period, overwhelming the Senators in a brilliant display of firepower.
All those goals, however, count for just one victory. It takes four wins to move on, not three. Pittsburgh ran into a similar situation two years ago when it took a 3-1 lead in the first round against Tampa Bay only to lose in seven games, including a 1-0 defeat at home in Game 7.
The defeat dropped Pittsburgh to 0-6 at home in potential series-clinching wins under coach Dan Bylsma, a number the Penguins believe is an anomaly.
“The fourth win in a series is always the hardest to get,” forward Matt Cooke said. “They become most desperate and emotionally attached to games.”
Perhaps, but the Senators appeared drained after the Penguins erupted for four goals in the third period. Coach Paul MacLean’s postgame session with the media lasted all of 13 seconds, which is about as long as it seems the Senators have led in regulation during the series.
More accurately, Ottawa held a pair of one-goal leads in Game 4. Both times the Penguins responded during what Bylsma called his team’s best road game of the playoffs.
Now he’d like to see something similar at Consol Energy Center. Despite a pair of shutouts in the first round against the Islanders and relatively easy – by playoff standards – wins against the Senators in Games 1 and 2 last week – Bylsma believes Pittsburgh can reach another gear at home. The Penguins might need it, if they want to avoid heading back to Canada Sunday.
“They’ll be coming in with that mentality to stretch this series back to Ottawa,” Bylsma said. “I think we have to be focused on playing our best home game of the playoffs.”
If the Penguins can somehow bring the swarming attack that swamped the Senators in Game 4, that shouldn’t be a problem. Pittsburgh tilted the ice for the better part of three periods, dumping the puck deep into Ottawa’s end then using its speed and aggressive forecheck to smother Ottawa to within a game of its season.
Pittsburgh forward James Neal broke out of a mini-slump with two goals and an assist. Jarome Iginla scored twice. Sidney Crosby added one and defenseman Kris Letang collected four assists. It was the kind of high-octane play that can be hard to come by in the postseason. Yet the Penguins have largely avoided the button-downed approach prevalent this time of year.
The NHL’s highest scoring team of the regular season also is the highest scoring team of the playoffs, averaging nearly a full goal a game better than the other seven teams remaining in the field.
Pittsburgh already has chased Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson twice in four games. He’ll almost certainly be back out there tonight yet understands the margin for error is all but gone.
“As you’ve seen in this series, when we don’t play well for five, six minutes in a row, the puck ends up in our net a few times,” Anderson said. “It’s really a focus thing, and we have to focus on playing well and playing well every shift.”
Something the Penguins have struggled with as well. The difference, though, has been Pittsburgh’s ability to exploit Ottawa’s mistakes. For all of Anderson’s talent, his teammates know he can only do so much if there isn’t much help in front of him.
“To expect him to make save after save from point-blank range is unrealistic,” Ottawa forward Jason Spezza said. “We have to do a better job of keeping them to the outside and taking some of the heat off him that way.”
The pressure will only rise tonight with the Penguins on the brink of getting halfway to the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup.