The only real similarity between the spirited and disciplined way in which the Penguins engaged the Ottawa Senators yesterday at Mellon Arena and the way they performed in the first round of last year's playoffs against this same splendid team was, umm, the result.
It's a fairly significant similarity.
And still no one around the Penguins seemed especially crestfallen over Ottawa's 4-3 overtime victory, coming as it did 3.2 seconds before a shootout that would have included some of hockey's most lethal snipers.
Three times in that overtime, Sergei Gonchar, still feeling the chill of a standing ovation that erupted after a brief scoreboard tribute to his 600th NHL point (the one that beat Montreal the other night), had gorgeous scoring opportunities right on his stick, and three times the superb Ottawa goaltender Ray Emery turned him away.
"Why don't we give credit to Emery?" Penguins coach Mike Therrien asked rhetorically. "We needed to capitalize on opportunities. We hit three posts, but Emery's the reason they won."
Emery was only part of the reason in April, when the Senators thumped the Penguins like postseason road kill and sped off to the Stanley Cup finals. In that abbreviated five-gamer, Ottawa outscored Pittsburgh, 18-10. At one point in Game 3 in this same building, Ottawa was outshooting the Penguins, 89-52, for the series.
"A lot of guys were new to the whole playoff thing," Colby Armstrong was remembering after his third goal in the past four games helped the Penguins to a 3-0 lead yesterday. "But the thing was, Ottawa was just firing on all cylinders and it really opened our eyes, seeing the way things are in the playoffs; it was something we could learn from."
Among the lessons still unlearned are the one about how there's no future in the kind of short naps the Penguins took late in the second period yesterday, right after that 3-0 lead had been established on a sweet, patient goal by Jeff Taffe. Also unlearned: You simply can't turn your back on these Senators in this building. Counting last year's two playoff games here, Ottawa has not been beaten in regulation at the Mellon Arena in 13 games.
But the evidence of what has been learned by Therrien's team was all over the ice, and Therrien's postgame statement that his team played well enough yesterday to win 95 percent of the time was probably at least 96 percent correct.
"I'm pleased," Therrien said. "We had a good checking game. I'm proud of the team effort. You keep playing like that, good things are gonna happen."
For two-plus periods, the Penguins back-checked so thoroughly and outskated Ottawa so badly in the offensive end that it made you wonder what had become of the team that dominated last year's Eastern Conference playoffs, and further, what had become of the Ottawa team that won 13 of its first 14 games this year. Despite coming into yesterday's event at the top of the conference, the Senators were in fact passing a fairly dreary winter. They were 10-11-2 since Jan. 1.
Still, there was little mystery to what happened to them for most of the day.
"Pittsburgh is playing really well right now," said Ottawa coach John Paddock. "They're forechecking hard, and their star is an unbelievable star, so there is pressure on you all the time."
That would be Evgeni Malkin, whose name didn't appear on the final score sheet for the first time in 11 games, but Geno still whipped seven shots and distributed the puck so thoroughly that on another day he might have had three, four, five assists.
Therrien later identified a "season-high 30" scoring chances the Penguins managed to turn into only three goals, mostly because they failed on their final five power plays.
"You get the kind of chances we had, you have to bury them," Armstrong said, "because with the firepower Ottawa has, they're never out of it. You look at them, they're so deep. So many scorers who can hurt you."
Ottawa has an NHL-high 210 goals and features four players -- Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Cory Stillman -- who have at least 20 goals. A fifth, Mike Fisher has 19. Petr Sykora's first-period goal gave the Penguins three players with at least 20, with a fourth on the shelf, you might have heard, with a high ankle sprain.
For most of yesterday's important test then, it looked as though the Penguins would get a victory against this team that tortured them in April, and get it without either Malkin and Sidney Crosby contributing a single point.
But Stillman put a rebound by Ty Conklin early in the second, Heatley scored twice, and the brilliant Alfredsson found an opening with the overtime clock about to expire.
"That is a good hockey team; they have good experience, and they have great players," Therrien said of the defending Eastern Conference champions. "They don't need a ton of chances to score, and their best player [Alfredsson] was very good tonight."
That's pretty much the way his own team looked, which is better by a ton than it looked in April.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283.