'Beware the wounded animal'

GARRY GALLEY

, Last Updated: 2:51 PM ET

All the stars are aligned for the NHL. Each team has a dance partner and the epic trek to sip from Lord Stanley's chalice begins today.

Many cliches in the hockey world pop up at this time of year. Hell, I used my fair share through 17 years of playing.

I've even passed some really good ones onto young players I've coached in my minor hockey endeavours. One cliche that seems fitting following the conclusion of the regular season: "Be careful what you wish for." Another might have been: "Keep your cards tight to your vest," as the Pittsburgh Penguins just might have tipped their poker hand a tad and showed the Senators a card or two.

The Penguins, who needed a win in Philadelphia on Sunday to clinch the Eastern Conference and home-ice advantage, decided to sit out Sidney Crosby ... and lost 2-0 to the Flyers. Sidney looked absolutely fine scoring two big goals Wednesday night as the Pens dropped the Flyers 4-2 in a very spirited game that saw lots of cheap shots at both teams' star players.

The thought of a hard-fought seven-game series with the Flyers may have been too much for Pittsburgh to stomach as Sunday's rematch produced a lacklustre Penguins performance.

Make no mistake, the Penguins felt the better match- up was with the Senators. It was not the best of poker faces I have seen. Nonetheless, these two teams will belly up to the table, chips in hand and ante in for the rematch of last year's first-round series, which saw Ottawa dismantle a young and inexperienced Penguins team in five games.

Most hockey experts will tell you that the Penguins hold a major chip advantage over the Senators and with the blinds rising, Ottawa will have to play some inspired hockey.

MALKIN COMES OF AGE

A lot has transpired since the Pens were ousted at the hands of the Sens last April. The Penguins are a year older and have grown. Lengthy injuries to Gary Roberts, Marc-Andre Fleury, Maxime Talbot and Crosby could have unravelled a veteran team. Instead, castoff netminder Ty Conklin opened eyes and a young understudy got his opportunity to shine in the spotlight as the hockey world saw the coming of age of Evgeni Malkin.

The Penguins are healthy now. Not only do Crosby and company return, but so does a mountain range of confidence and character earned this season.

Senators fans won't miss hard-nosed winger Colby Armstrong, but will see the player they coveted most on trade-deadline day, ex-Senator Marian Hossa. He can be a difference-maker if you let him, but has not really impressed so far. Defenceman Sergei Gonchar is the real deal. An offensive star, he logs a ton of quality minutes and is adequate defensively. He also has a bit of a dark side, ask Scott Hartnell about his nose job, compliments of Gonchar's elbow.

The Penguins' goaltending is as secure as it has been in a while. Fleury has rebounded nicely from an ankle injury and rehab stint in the AHL.

The Pens certainly look like the sexy pick, but not so quick. Playoff series are not handed over on paper alone.

CLEAR-CUT UNDERDOG

The Sens will be the clear-cut underdog, with the pressure on Pittsburgh. It will be up to the Sens to turn that pressure dial up to the limit.

The Senators have had success vs. both Penguin goalies, especially Fleury.

Winning Game 1 on the road would be the best way for the Senators to mount more pressure onto this still-young Penguins squad.

Their desire to avoid the Flyers shows the Penguins' disdain for a physical series. Ottawa must be aggressive, but smart. The minutes played by Crosby, Malkin, Petr Sykora, Hossa and Gonchar must be hard minutes. The Senators will have to avoid the penalty box while getting physical.

On Sunday, the Flyers exploited a Penguins power play that takes many risks and the Senators' penalty-killing unit has 18 short-handed goals this season. This could play out to be a huge factor.

The Senators' cards are on the table for everyone to see with no opportunity to bluff.

Gone from the lineup are three major pieces. The loss of captain Daniel Alfredsson (and his seven short-handed goals), hard-nosed centre Mike Fisher and key role player Chris Kelly will test the Senators' depth. Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley will be called upon to pick up a major part of the slack.

Goalie Martin Gerber must find his form and a blue-line corps that at times has been chastised for shoddy defensive play will need to tighten up. This is what the playoffs are all about. Rising to the occasion and proving people wrong.

It is truly a great time for players to step into the spotlight and make names for themselves.

Plain and simple, nobody feels sorry for the Senators. The Penguins wanted them and now they've got them. That should bring a ton of motivation to a hockey team a lot of people have already counted out.

Oh yeah, one more hockey cliche: "Beware the wounded animal."


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