Monday April 19th, 2010

There was good news to be had for the Ottawa Senators in the wake of Sunday's 4-2 loss to the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins. First, Sidney Crosby probably can't play any better against them than he already has.

Second? Daniel Alfredsson can't play much worse.

One team's superstar has found a way to raise his game. The other's hasn't. That pretty much sums up why the Sens, who took the opener in Pittsburgh, trail this Eastern conference quarterfinal series 2-1 ... and why the pressure now falls squarely on Ottawa's captain to turn this thing around.

That's not to suggest Alfredsson should bear the blame for this slide alone. There are plenty of Senators who need to spend a little thoughtful time in front of the mirror after this one. Maybe things would have been different if Brian Elliott hadn't allowed Alexei Ponikarovsky's harmless looking wrister slip through his pillows just 77 seconds into the game. Maybe a hint of a defensive effort from Jason Spezza (minus-3) would have slowed the Penguins down. And who knows what might have happened if Erik Karlsson hadn't allowed Max Talbot to pick his pocket on the play that led to Evgeni Malkin's goal early in the second, or hadn't taken an undisciplined slashing penalty later that period with the Sens on the power play and trailing by just one.

The point being, they're failing as a team. Scapegoating the captain isn't fair. But with the series slipping away, it's time for Alfredsson to earn his letter.

The other guy sure is. Crosby, who had figured in five of Pittsburgh's six goals coming into the contest, again sparked the Pittsburgh offense, chipping in a goal and an assist on the night. His first points of the season at Scotiabank Place, it should be noted.

There's that raising his game thing again.

Of course, it wasn't "just" a goal. It was a big goal, the clincher, and it was the result of another special play. Maybe not as brilliant as his assist on Kris Letang's winner Friday, but you're going to wait awhile before seeing another that good.

This time, Crosby won a battle with 6-foot-6 behemoth Andy Sutton along the half-boards, barreled his way through the slot around three pylons -- sorry, Sens' defenders -- pulled Elliott down and out and wristed the puck into the top half of a gaping cage with just 45 seconds left in the second, giving the Pens a 3-1 lead.

He later set up Bill Guerin's insurance goal with another nifty defensive play, stripping the puck from Nick Foligno in the Penguins' zone before pushing it to Chris Kunitz, who then sent the veteran winger in alone against a helpless Elliott.

And then there was The Hit. Appropriately, the victim was Alfredsson.

Skating around the Ottawa net and trying to control a suicide pass that arrived between his feet, Alfredsson made the mistake of looking down. A split second later, Crosby planted his shoulder into the Senator's chest, sending him crashing to the ice, stunned and cursing in frustration.

If you're looking for a metaphor for the series, that'll probably do.

After spending the next five minutes in the Sens' dressing room (where he was reminded to keep his head up, he joked later), Alfredsson emerged, finally, with a sense of purpose.

He promptly took umbrage at a Brooks Orpik hit, piledriving the Pens defender into the ice. For his efforts, he earned two minutes in the box for kneeing.

A smart move with his team trailing? Maybe not, but at least it confirmed that Alfredsson did, in fact, have a pulse.

Not long after he was set free, Alfredsson joined a power play and planted himself at the point to take a pass from Spezza. Seconds later, his cross-ice feed to Matt Cullen was deposited over Marc-Andre Fleury's left shoulder to draw the Sens to within two.

Too little, too late on this night. But it was something.

Maybe that hit finally pushed Alfredsson to his emotional boiling point. If it did, that's certainly a sign of something better for the Sens in Game 4.

And that's one assist Crosby won't want to take credit for.

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