There's plenty of animosity between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators in anticipation of their Eastern Conference Semi-Final Series, which will begin this week. Many players on these teams are all too familiar with one another after three recent playoff match-ups (the first rounds of 2007, 2008, and 2010) as well as numerous heated regular-season games. So there's some history here.
What can we expect in the series? There will undoubtedly be a few storylines, but here are a few:
1. Chris Phillips on Sidney Crosby
Big Game Chris always seems to draw the tough man-on-man assignments, and he's taken on Crosby since the kid's entered the league. Despite Phillips' coverage, Crosby's lit up the Sens in the regular season (6G, 19A in 24GP), and it's only been worse in the post-season: He's got 27P (10G, 17A) in 15 career playoff games against Ottawa--far above his career points-per-game average. If Phillips has any hope of keeping Crosby in check, he's going to need help from a few key guys: His defence partner (unclear at this point, but likely Jared Cowen or Sergei Gonchar), his centreman (either Kyle Turris or Zack Smith will likely get shutdown duty), and Mr. Craig Anderson. Phillips would then key in on Crosby, while the other guys can worry about his linemates.
This might be the most important opportunity for the Senators. While Anderson has been stellar for Ottawa, Marc-Andre Fleury was a disaster for the Penguins. Tomas Vokoun's performance was significantly better, and his 95.7 post-season save percentage currently leads the league. It seems like a no-brainer that Vokoun will start in Game One, but if he doesn't, the Senators will have to take advantage; if he does, they'll have to make life difficult for him. Although Ottawa doesn't have a John Tavares-calibre sniper, they've got an Erik Karlsson, and they've got 12 guys who scored at least one goal in the first round. That depth will be critical to any success the Sens find in round two. And maybe they'll get a big reinforcement before the series is over...
3. Jason Spezza
Spezza practiced with the team on Sunday. It's still unclear when he might return to the lineup, but if he can make it back before the end of Round Two, it'll be big for the Sens' offence. The first concern will be Spezza's health and whether there's a serious risk of re-aggravating the injury he's currently trying to return from, but if soreness and/or fitness is all that's holding him back, his return will be huge. Even if Spezza himself isn't able to produce, he'll draw some of the Penguin's top defenders away from guys like Turris and Mika Zibanejad, giving those two a bit more room to work. We'll see if anything happens here, but Spezza's return would be huge. Based on his recent comments, he sounds motivated to return:
4. Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang
These guys are, in my opinion, the most dynamic defencemen in the game right now. They each scored six points in the first round, but Karlsson did it in one less game and wasn't at full health. It's unlikely Karlsson will be 100 per cent for round two, but he should at least be a bit better after a week of rest; will it be evident on the ice? He's a point-per-game player against the Penguins in the post-season (1G, 5A in 6GP), and Pittsburgh's defence isn't exactly a tour de force defensively right now; he should be able to enjoy at least as much freedom as he did against Montreal in round one. Letang, on the other hand, scored most of his points on the powerplay; his production will go as far as the Penguins' PP prowess.
5. Matt Cooke
This, you can be sure, will be a story. Will it be a relevant one? I don't think so. As much as many Sens players would love to give Cooke some comeuppance for the Karlsson injury, Paul MacLean should be able to keep them on track and focused on the tasks at hand. Guys like Chris Neil and Colin Greening will finish their checks on him without remorse, but Cooke's probably used to that. The playoffs aren't a time to extract your pound of flesh.
What do you think: Which of these storylines will dominate the series? Are there others that you think will come up before the series is out?