James Neal's hat trick leads Penguins to 6-2 victory over Ottawa

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Swell place, Ottawa.

An historic and, in places, picturesque city. A lot of nice people and plenty of powerful ones, too. Great place to spend a little time in the spring.

But the last place the Penguins wanted to go this weekend.

Their play in a 6-2 victory against Ottawa in Game 5 of their second-round playoff series Friday night at Consol Energy Center -- which secured a spot in the Eastern Conference final and removed any need to return to Ontario for a Game 6 -- made that pretty obvious.

"We came out with the desperation to win," said winger James Neal, whose personal contribution came in the form of three goals and an assist.

The Penguins had a pronounced edge in play most of the game, especially when the outcome was still in doubt, to claim a spot in the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 2009, when they earned the franchise's third Stanley Cup.

They also won a series on home ice for the first time since ending Philadelphia's season at Mellon Arena in the 2008 conference final.

The outcome of the series had been widely predicted, and Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson suggested it was entirely appropriate, as well.

"They were better than us in each and every game," he said.

The Penguins will face the winner of the Boston-New York Rangers series for the conference title. The Bruins hold a 3-1 lead, and can win the series with a victory at home today.

"At this point, whoever you play, it's going to be a pretty tough series," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. "Anyone who gets this far, it's for good reason."

Whichever team they meet in the next round likely will devote a lot of time to scheming ways to contain Neal. After a slow start in this postseason, he got three goals and an assist in Game 5 after putting up two goals and an assist in Game 4.

"The way he shoots the puck and the way he can hold onto it, he can definitely scores in bunches," Crosby said. "He's proven that. He's done it before. That's pretty difficult to do in the playoffs."

The Penguins' next opponent might want to do some detailed video work on goalie Tomas Vokoun, too. He stopped 29 of 31 shots Friday and is 6-1 since replacing Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 5 of the opening round against the New York Islanders.

He wasn't obliged to be spectacular for most of Game 5, but again came up with the saves the Penguins needed, when they needed them most.

Vokoun deflected credit for his success -- "There was a lot of goal support. For a goalie, that makes it that much easier to play" -- but his teammates again acknowledged the role he played.

"Obviously, [Vokoun] was very solid for us," Crosby said.

Neal noted that the Penguins "got a great start again." Left winger Brenden Morrow, who sat out Game 4 with an apparent arm/shoulder injury, returned to the lineup and put them in front to stay at 6:25 of the opening period steering a Mark Eaton feed past Senators goalie Craig Anderson.

Neal made it 2-0 at 7:38 of the second, jamming in a loose puck on a power play, and Kris Letang threw a high shot past Anderson's glove at 12:48 for what proved to be the series-winner.

Ottawa didn't wilt -- Senators winger Milan Michalek threw a backhander past Vokoun from the front lip of the crease at 16:18, one second after a delay-of-game penalty to Douglas Murray of the Penguins expired -- but Evgeni Malkin sealed the outcome with a breakaway goal 29.2 seconds to go before the intermission.

The Senators weren't officially done at that point, but Malkin's goal seem to snuff any hope they had of coming back. Alfredsson took a hooking minor 40 seconds into the third period, and Chris Neil went off for slashing just over three minutes later.

Neal picked off a pass by Senators defenseman Sergei Gonchar at the right side of the net, carried it to the front and flipped the puck past Anderson at 11:07, but Kyle Turris exploited an ill-conceived poke-check by Letang to get Ottawa back within three at 13:32.

Neal put an exclamation point on the series -- and completed his hat trick -- at 17:21.

He also made it clear that, regardless of who the Penguins face in Round 3, they don't plan to alter the attacking style that served them so well against Ottawa.

"We're going to keep going and do the same thing," Neal said. "We're confident that if we keep playing the same way, we'll get results."

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Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG First Published May 25, 2013 4:00 AM


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