Sens will be challenged in Round 1

Whether the Senators face Martin Brodeur and the Devils or Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, Ottawa...

Whether the Senators face Martin Brodeur and the Devils or Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, Ottawa will be hard-pressed to win their first-round playoff series. (TONY CALDWELL/QMI Agency)

BRUCE GARRIOCH, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:23 PM ET

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Will it be Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils or Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 1?

Well, pick your poison.

After a 4-1 loss to the New York Islanders Saturday, the Senators had a day off to enjoy the Sunshine State before facing the Florida Panthers Tuesday in their third-to-last game of the regular season.

They had better get their rest for what’s shaping up as a tough opening round of the playoffs. On a collision course to face either New Jersey or Pittsburgh, the Senators know neither will be easy.

“They each present different challenges,” said coach Cory Clouston. “Each team has their strengths and weaknesses. To name (a preferred) opponent, in either case it’s going to be difficult. In certain ways, we match up better against one team and then all of a sudden you flip it around and we match up better against another.

“It all depends on your execution and goaltending. One has great defensive structure (in New Jersey) and the other has two of the most elite offensive players in the world (in Crosby, Evgeni Malkin). Both teams have great goaltending. I’m not going to say which team I’d rather play because to be honest, I’m not sure.”

While the Penguins have the firepower, the Devils’ Martin Brodeur is one of the best goalies in the world and they’ve added sniper Ilya Kovalchuk for the playoffs.

The Senators had a better regular-season record (2-2) against the Penguins, but the games vs. the Devils (1-3) were mostly low-scoring and tight-checking.

Crosby had no goals and three assists against Ottawa; Bill Guerin (3-3-6) and Malkin (5-0-5) did the damage.

The Devils boast Patrik Elias and Zach Parise. But it was Jamie Langenbrunner (2-3-5) who came up big against the Senators during the season.

The Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Devils have the pedigree.

Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice sized up the teams.

“We actually played well against Pittsburgh all year, but the key for them is they are strong on the puck and, for a team that is as talented as it is, they actually work pretty damn hard,” he said. “New Jersey brings the work first and there’s not the firepower that the Penguins have. The Devils will just grind out a win. I just don’t think when you go into New Jersey there is the same offensive fear. That’s the difference between the two.

“The Penguins probably don’t get the credit they deserve for the amount of hard work that they do.”

Former Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said neither is an easy matchup.

“They are two different approaches,” said Hartley, now an analyst for RDS. “Pittsburgh is going to be more wide open, there’s going to be more outnumbered situations and it’s going to be more of a run-and-gun style.

“For the last 20 years, you know when you face the New Jersey Devils, you know who you’re facing. It’s defence first and now they have the wildcard in their lineup with Kovalchuk. You know when playoff time comes, that the guy with his name in the record book in Brodeur, most of the time, he is at his best.”

Maurice said the Devils and Penguins probably don’t want to face the Senators, either.

One of the hottest teams down the stretch — their six-game win streak was snapped Saturday — the Senators have received timely goals and strong goaltending from Brian Elliott.

Losers of 8-of-9 after the Olympic break, they’ve also bounced back from adversity.

“This team is going to be tough against whoever they face,” said Maurice, who made it to the East final last year. “When these guys are going, they come at you pretty hard, they skate through the neutral zone with a lot of speed and they can grind out a win as well.

“They’re going to have to play well to beat either (the Penguins or Devils) and both of those teams will have to play well to beat this one.

“Last year, we didn’t want to play Boston because we hadn’t beaten them during the regular season. Then, we won in the playoffs.”

Hartley said the Penguins could be the better matchup for the Senators.

“The Devils will never run out of patience,” said Hartley. “They play playoff hockey all year round. The way the Penguins are playing right now ... they don’t lead me to have big confidence in them.”

The Senators are trying not to get caught up in matchups.

“It doesn’t matter who we play,” said GM Bryan Murray. “They’re both good teams.”


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