Penguins face streaking Senators
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma on the Senators who are moving up the Eastern Conference standings: "They're breathing down our necks."
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There are differing opinions on why Ottawa has won seven in a row to become a bigger factor in the Eastern Conference race.
The Senators are fairly healthy after missing some key players to injury this season. They are getting unexpectedly strong goaltending from Brian Elliott. After some upheaval, they might be finding the right chemistry among the players and with Cory Clouston, who will mark his first year as coach next week.
One thing is for sure: Ottawa's timing is good as it comes to town to play the Penguins tonight at Mellon Arena.
• Game: Penguins vs. Ottawa Senators, 7:08 p.m. today, Mellon Arena.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
• Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Brian Elliott for Senators.
• Penguins: Are 9-4 vs. Northeast Division. ... C Evgeni Malkin has 4 goals, 1 assist in 3 games vs. Ottawa this season. ... Are 9-1 in games decided in OT or shootout.
• Senators: Are 7-7-1 vs. Atlantic Division. ... Alexei Kovalev has 7-game points streak (2 goals, 6 assists). ... Ottawa RW Daniel Alfredsson is tied for NHL lead with 4 short-handed points through Wednesday.
• Hidden stat: Ottawa is 1-19-1 when trailing after two periods.
"This is the time of year when you start seeing teams pick it up a bit," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said after practice Wednesday at Mellon Arena. "We all realize the games become bigger. Hopefully, us as a team, we're improving, but a lot of other teams are, too. I think you're going to start to see teams make pushes and see some teams pick up some momentum."
The Senators helped the Penguins by beating Atlantic Division leader New Jersey, 3-0, Tuesday. On the flip side, that moved the Senators within five points of the fourth-place Penguins in the East, and Ottawa could close the gap for home-ice playoff advantage with a win tonight.
Ottawa hasn't won eight in a row since Oct. 13-Nov. 6, 2007. That season, the Senators were the best team in the league early on, but then fizzled. They went 3-6-1 over their last 10 regular-season games and got swept by the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs.
The Penguins have won two of the first three games in the four-game series this season against Ottawa, and the Senators aren't pushovers.
"They're breathing down our necks," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "It should be a good game."
Ottawa is as healthy as it has been in months after injuries to top players such as winger and captain Daniel Alfredsson (back for six games after missing 11 because of a shoulder injury Dec. 23 against the Penguins), center Jason Spezza (back for two games after missing 20 because of a knee injury), winger Milan Michalek (missed seven games early because of an undisclosed injury), winger Shean Donovan (missed 18 games in the first half because of a knee injury) and goaltender Pascal Leclaire (missed 16 games earlier because of a broken cheekbone and the past six because of a concussion).
"I think health is a part of it," Penguins defenseman Jay McKee said. "If you look at their lineup, they've got a great hockey team. I think maybe earlier in the season they just didn't find their chemistry or their lines, but the guys are playing well now and putting up a lot of points."
Elliott has become the Senators' go-to goaltender.
"When you get a goaltender who's playing well every night and giving your team a chance to win, players rally behind that," McKee said. "They're definitely getting that there. It just kind of raises the level of everybody on the team when you have a goaltender playing as well as he is."
Elliott is on a 5-0 streak to improve to 15-11-3 and was named the NHL's top star for last week. A ninth-round draft pick in 2003, he played at the University of Wisconsin and had appeared in just 32 NHL games before this season.
"They're getting some good goaltending from probably a surprise situation for them," Bylsma said, adding that the Senators also are thriving on Clouston's defensively structured system.
The Senators have given up just seven goals in their seven-game streak.
Ottawa has begun to make a run at the Northeast Division title despite some trouble on special teams.
The Senators rank last in the NHL on the power play at 15.1 percent. They balance that with penalty killing that, through Wednesday, was eighth in the league at 83.8 percent.
"You can win hockey games without your power play getting goals," said Bylsma, who should know considering the Penguins' power play has struggled most of the season.
Ottawa, though, has been strong on both special teams lately. In its past six games, it is 5 of 20 (25 percent) on the power play and 18 of 18 in penalty killing.
"They're playing great," Penguins winger Bill Guerin said. "We're going to have to be on our 'A' game to beat them. ... They seem to be firing on all cylinders."