Ottawa will see a different Penguins team in playoffs

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OTTAWA -- It's entirely possible that the Penguins will face Ottawa in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

If so, the Senators seem to understand that defeating the Penguins four times in seven games wouldn't be easy.

Probably not much tougher, though, than simply recognizing them might be if these teams collide in the postseason. At least if Ottawa uses the Penguins' lineup for their game Monday night at Scotiabank Place as a guide.

What has become the usual list of medical no-shows -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Paul Martin -- was swollen by the absence of defenseman Kris Letang (food poisoning) and forward Beau Bennett (undisclosed injury)

What's more, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury didn't play because his wife was believed to be close to giving birth to their first child.

"They don't have their big guys here, obviously," Senators right winger Eric Condra said. "So it's going to be a different team when they get into the playoffs."

Precisely what the lineup will look like for Game 1 of a first-round series, which seems likely to be May 1 at Consol Energy Center, still isn't clear.

Coach Dan Bylsma said that Crosby (broken jaw), Malkin (shoulder), Neal (concussion) and Martin (hand surgery) skated Monday in Pittsburgh, but did not mention any target date for them to return.

There's no indication any of them will be in uniform tonight when Buffalo visits Consol Energy Center.

Penguins winger Brenden Morrow, while acknowledging the obvious importance of the players who didn't dress against Ottawa, suggested other players could benefit from opportunities those absences create.

"You never like to see guys not in the lineup," he said. "But ... other guys [are] getting experience or getting put in situations maybe they haven't been in."

First-time backup

Fleury staying home allowed goalie Eric Hartzell, signed as a free agent out of Quinnipiac last week, to crack an NHL lineup for the first time, as he backed up Tomas Vokoun.

Not having Fleury available against the Senators likely scrambled the Penguins' plan for using their goalies in the final week of the regular season, although Bylsma said the basic idea -- to use Fleury in three of the final four games -- has not changed.

"The plan right now is for Marc to play three games, still," he said. "That's not changing right now. Obviously, with the pregnancy they're having, we don't get to dictate that."

Vokoun said the possibility of Fleury not traveling to Ottawa first came up when the Penguins were in Boston, but that the situation didn't become clear right away.

"They thought Marc was going [to Ottawa]," Vokoun said. "Then everything changed again."

The game Monday night was Vokoun's 700th NHL appearance, and all of that experience probably had a lot to do with way he took the unscheduled start in stride.

"Obviously, there are some personal matters Marc had going, so [remaining in Pittsburgh] was probably the best scenario for him," he said. "For me, it doesn't change anything. It's just another game."

Similar situation

The Penguins clearly have had their share -- and probably another team's, as well -- of injuries to significant players, especially this month.

The Senators, though, might have experienced even more significant losses. They've played extended stretches this season without defenseman Erik Karslsson, center Jason Spezza, winger Milan Michalek and goaltender Craig Anderson.

Despite all of that adversity, the Senators were closing in a on playoff berth Monday night and have discovered that some promising young prospects are ready to contribute in the NHL.

"I don't think, when you lose your best players, it really makes you a better team," Senators coach Paul MacLean said. "But what it has done is to give a lot of good, young players an opportunity play in the National Hockey League that maybe wouldn't have had that opportunity if everybody had stayed healthy."

Those players include defensemen Patrick Wiercioch, Andre Benoit and Eric Gryba; center Mika Zibanejad and goalie Ben Bishop, the latter of whom was traded to Tampa Bay a few weeks ago.

"Those opportunities that young players took advantage of is where the growth of our team has been and where the success of our team has been," MacLean said.

Non-playoff matchups

The game Monday was the Penguins' final one against a playoff team until, well, the playoffs.

Their remaining three games -- at home tonight against Buffalo in a rescheduled game, Thursday at New Jersey and the regular-season finale Saturday against Carolina at Consol Energy Center -- will pit them against clubs eliminated from playoff contention.

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