PITTSBURGH — How have they done it?
Not a seven-game winning streak that has arrived directly on the heels of 4-1 and 6-1 losses to Carolina and Atlanta, because it still defies any logic .... but how have the Senators managed to keep Sidney Crosby quiet?
No other Eastern Conference team has had as much success stifling the Penguins captain, who has just two goals in 16 career regular-season games against Ottawa.
What’s been the key?
“I can think of two: (Chris) Phillips and (Anton) Volchenkov,” captain Daniel Alfredsson said of the shutdown D-pairing before the Senators boarded a flight to the Steel City and Thursday’s game against the Penguins. “I think they get a little extra excited when they play against Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Alex) Ovechkin ... guys that can single-handedly win games for a team.”
Crosby, who has nine goals and nine assists in his last 10 games to move into third (33 goals, 34 assists) in the league scoring race, has scored in almost half (165) of the NHL games (343) he has played. And he’s had his glorious chances against the Senators. Like, when Martin Gerber was their goalie, for crying out loud.
It’s not like he’s been completely smothered. He does have 11 assists vs. Ottawa. But two goals in 16 games?
Of the 13 goals Pittsburgh has scored in compiling a 2-1 record against the Senators this season, Crosby has not scored once. And that includes an 8-2 thrashing Dec. 23 that ranks as Ottawa’s worst game in years.
“You get excited to play that game, because you need to be,” Phillips said of facing the Penguins. “It’s a good, fun challenge to try and shut those guys down. Being one of the best in the game, sometimes playing with Malkin on a line, it’s a tough combo. It’s fun. You always have sort of measuring sticks as you go along and that’s obviously one of them. If you can shut them down, you feel pretty good about yourself.”
Phillips and Volchenkov aren’t always on the ice against Crosby when games are in Pittsburgh and the Penguins have last change. But coach Senators Cory Clouston makes sure he sends them over the boards on first opportunity he gets.
Phillips says there’s no real secret to playing Crosby.
“It’s being aware when he’s on the ice, appreciating his speed,” he said. “He’s a fast player. It’s not just me and Volchie back there. It’s the forwards picking him up in the neutral zone, to try and not allow him space. And not even allow his teammates to pass him the puck. Force him to give the puck to somebody else.
“And then in our own zone, it’s always about being on him. If you give him space and time because you’re worried about making a good play, he is going to make a good play. He’s going to find an open guy or make a great shot or whatever. Once in a while you’re going to get beat, but it’s about having other guys right there to support you and take the next wave. For the five guys that are on the ice, it’s a good challenge.”
Facing the fourth-place Penguins will be a big test for the Senators, who will be trying to chalk up their eighth consecutive victory to equal a franchise record. Interestingly, the Senators have allowed just seven goals in rattling off seven straight wins — or one less than they gave up the last time they were at Mellon Arena.
“It’s nothing we’ve talked about yet,” said Jason Spezza, “but I’m sure (Thursday morning) we’ll address the fact that they put a good licking on us last time and we want to have a good showing.”
The Senators outshot the Penguins 24-9 in the first period of that game, but lost Alfredsson to a separated shoulder and ultimately surrendered seven unanswered goals in the second and third.
“It was one of those nights where Murphy’s Law kind of played into it,” said Clouston. “They capitalized on their chances, full credit to them ... (but) it was one of those things that happens throughout the year. Every team has one, it seems, during the season. That seemed to be one of our situations where we just couldn’t do anything right that game.
“We’ve just got to be solid defensively, play to our strengths and do it for 60 minutes.”