Tougher tests await the Penguins

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In the aftermath of the near-flawless hockey that resulted in the Penguins sweep of the Ottawa Senators, here's one question that needs to be asked:

Are the Penguins that good or were the Senators that bad?

It's a legitimate question because what transpired on the ice of Mellon Arena and Scotiabank Place was not typical of Stanley Cup competition. Although a Penguins victory was expected, it didn't figure to be so absurdly lopsided. The Penguins verged on perfect in outscoring the Senators, 16-5. They outplayed their opponent in every phase and came close to excelling in every phase. They dominated play to such an extent they made the Senators look like a team that didn't belong.

And that's the point. They didn't. Perhaps no playoff team performed more poorly down the stretch than the Senators, who opened the season 13-1 and slowly unraveled. They had lost six of their final eight games and 24 of their last 38. Had they been playing any team, let alone the streaking Penguins, they would have had difficulty being successful. If the regular season had lasted another week, the Carolina Hurricanes would have replaced the Senators in the playoffs.

So, in examining what the Penguins did and where this performance leaves them for the remainder of the playoffs, the caliber of the competition must be considered.

This was a two seed, which easily could have been the top seed, against a seventh seed, which, by the season's end, was not really playoff worthy. It was a mismatch, although some preferred to ignore that fact. On television before the final game, a commentator was marveling at how the Penguins were dominating most of the playoff statistics. He was ignoring the fact it was a three-game sample, and therefore virtually meaningless, and that the Penguins' opponent didn't belong in the postseason. It wasn't quite like marveling at the defensive statistics of the Pitt football team after it opened with Eastern Michigan and Grambling, but close.

None of this is a criticism of the Penguins. They did what they were supposed to do. Faced with an inferior opponent, they manhandled that opponent. The belief here is the Penguins will advance to the Stanley Cup final. The above is pointed out to indicate it's probably not going to be as easy as the first four games.

If there was one drawback to the opening series it was that the Penguins were not particularly tested.

Marc-Andre Fleury, for example, is being widely lauded. He made some important saves, but because the Penguins so dominated the series and led for all but a few of the 240 minutes, he never was tested under pressure. That's not a major concern because Fleury played well down the stretch in the important games. But there's nothing quite like playoff pressure.

It will be interesting to see how the Penguins handle adversity, which they surely will face, as the playoffs continue. No question, they dealt with it superbly during the regular season by pushing aside monumental injuries to Fleury and Sidney Crosby as if they were minor inconveniences.

But how will they stand up to, say, the kind of adversity the 1991 Penguins faced when they lost the first two games of the conference final to the Boston Bruins? Will one of them stand up, as Kevin Stevens did that night in the Boston Garden, and promise a Penguins victory? And will his teammates rally around him, as Stevens' did, and win the next four games?

How will this team stand up to the kind of adversity the 1992 Penguins faced when the stick of the New York Rangers' Adam Graves broke the hand of Mario Lemieux in the second game of the conference semifinals? What if Crosby's ankle is reinjured or Evgeni Malkin is seriously hurt? Will their teammates respond as Lemieux's did? That great team barely blinked, although, it played without Lemieux for five games. It lost the next game, to fall behind in the series, 2-1, and never lost again -- winning three in a row from the Rangers and four in a row from the Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks.

Those are the kinds of stories that lie ahead for this team and its fans.

They're the kind of stories that make postseason sports competition the best of times and the kind of stories that make the Stanley Cup playoffs the best of those best of times.

Correction/Clarification: (Published April 19, 2008) This story as originally published in April 18, 2008 editions had the incorrect nickname for Carolina of the National Hockey League. Its nickname is the Hurricanes.

Bob Smizik can be reached at .


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