'A hell of a series'

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:47 AM ET

Will it be the march of the Penguins? Or can the Senators write a quick ending to the NHL's Cinderella story?

Sidney Crosby may be the headliner, but the Senators are determined to steal the show as they open their much-anticipated first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight at Scotiabank Place.

While the Senators are the favourites, this series is too close to call in many ways.

"I look at this on paper," said an Eastern Conference coach, "and I believe this is going to be a hell of a series."

With the help of that coach, the Sun breaks down the best-of-seven matchup.

FORWARDS

It will be Jason Spezza vs. Crosby. The play of these young stars will go a long way in determining the winner.

Each team's top centre will carry a big load of ice time while being the featured targets for their opponents.

Spezza and winger Dany Heatley have matured, but have to prove they can get it done in the playoffs with captain Daniel Alfredsson and centre Mike Fisher. Peter Schaefer and Mike Comrie need to be consistent.

Crosby will have plenty of support from the likes of Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi and Ryan Malone.

"Ottawa has the experience, but the thing I like about the Penguins forwards is they're willing to go to the dirty zone in front of the net," said the coach. "Yes, Ottawa has plenty of talent, but the Pittsburgh forwards are willing to play more rugged. Guys like Spezza and Heatley are going to have to play with jam if they're going to win this series.

''What makes Crosby successful? He's willing to pay the price, go to the front of the net and he's physical. This area is close.''

EDGE: Penguins.

DEFENCE

Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov have emerge as the Senators' top blue-line pair and they'll have the difficult job of trying to shut down Crosby and Co., who produced 277 goals during the regular season -- third best in the NHL.

There continues to be concern about the play of Wade Redden and Andrej Meszaros, who have struggled with consistency all season.

Joe Corvo and Tom Preissing have seen more time on the power play, but their ice time has been limited.

"If I'm Bryan Murray, I find a way to get Christoph Schubert on defence," said the coach. "He brings the one element you're going to need back there: Size and physical play. This is going to be a real test for the Ottawa defence because Pittsburgh isn't afraid to battle for the puck. Ottawa's top four is strong, but they have to prove they can handle the Penguins."

Pittsburgh counters with veteran Sergei Gonchar while Ryan Whitney, Josef Melichar and Rob Scuderi are unheralded.

"The Senators might have one of the best blue lines in the game,'' said the coach, ''but they had better be at the top of their game. This is the ultimate test.''

EDGE: Senators.

GOALTENDING

Ray Emery has had a standout season and stole the No. 1 job from Martin Gerber after training camp. The 24-year-old Emery has been the biggest reason why the Senators survived their doldrums in November and made a trip to the playoffs with their fourth-straight 100-plus points season. This is his second trip to the playoffs as a starter.

The Senators can expect the Penguins to crash the crease. They're going to want to get into Emery's head and that's why Colby Armstrong sent a little message in the clubs' final regular-season game at Scotiabank Place last week.

Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury gives up big rebounds, but the Senators forwards will have to go to the net to get them.

"I really like Emery. I would expect the Penguins are going to try to make him move East-to-West a lot because scouts believe that's an area where Emery has to improve," said the coach. "As for Fleury, he kicks out big rebounds and the Senators had better jump on them.

''Emery has carried the Senators all season. He should be able to do it here."

EDGE: Senators.

COACHING

Senators bench boss Bryan Murray has been around a long time and he came back to Ottawa from Anaheim to win a Stanley Cup. He's in the final year of his contract and hasn't been offered an extension by GM John Muckler, so the club's post-season performance will mean a lot.

Observers picked Michel Therrien as the first coach to be fired this season and he fooled everyone by taking the Penguins to the playoffs -- and as the No. 5 seed as well.

"They've both done a good job,'' said the coach. ''I just think Murray has had to go through a lot this year. They had the struggles and there's been a lot of inconistency."

EDGE: Senators.

INTANGIBLES

The Senators and Penguins are similar in that both groups have "grown up together." But the Sens are carrying plenty of playoff baggage after falling short of great expectations spring after spring.

The Penguins, on the other hand, come in with youthful innocence. Little is expected of them.

"People forget that a lot of guys on the Penguins had success in Wilkes-Barre with the AHL affiliate together,'' said the coach. ''The fun the Penguins are having is infectious and it can take you a long way. They like being around each other, they've had success together and during the lockout (in 2005), they got down 2-0 in a series and knocked off the Binghamton Senators in six games."

The difference, the coach added, could be the trade deadline addition of Roberts to the Penguins room.

"He should be playing for Ottawa,'' said the coach, ''and every player in the Pittsburgh dressing room knows that.''

EDGE: Penguins

THE COACH'S PICK: Penguins in 7.


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