By Allan Muir
The Ottawa Senators finally proved they knew how to take a lead. They just didn't know how to hold the lead.
That might sound like an old Seinfeld bit, but no one in Ottawa was laughing.
After Milan Michalek and Kyle Turris staked the Sens to a 2-1 edge during an entertaining first period, the Pittsburgh Penguins roared back with six unanswered goals on the way to a 7-3 win and commanding 3-1 series lead.
Here are some observations from the pivotal Game 4:
• This one proved what many believed heading into this series. The Penguins are too deep and too experienced for the young Senators. Pittsburgh's top six forwards toyed with Ottawa's defense, then crushed the Sens' spirits with goals that came in waves. The Pens scored two within 40 seconds to take the lead in the second period, then three more in the third in a span of 1:45 to gut any hope of a comeback. They scored twice on the power play to break an 0-for-11 skid, and once shorthanded just to rub it in. James Neal and Jarome Iginla broke out of slumps with two goals each, and singles came from Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. Kris Letang, who made critical coverage errors on Ottawa's first two goals, rebounded with four assists.
This was total dominance.
It's nice that Ottawa managed to steal one for the fans at home, but this series seems destined to end after Game 5 on Friday night in Pittsburgh.
• If hockey doesn't work out for him, Evgeni Malkin might have a future in clairvoyance. He said prior to Game 4 that Neal was due for a breakthrough and the big winger responded with his best effort of the playoffs. In just over 15 minutes, Neal landed nine shots, created multiple high-end chances and guaranteed himself a starring role in Craig Anderson's nightmares.
Neal tied it up midway through the first, collecting a puck off an Iginla face-off win and sliding to his left before launching a laser that beat Anderson high on the glove side. "I think it was real big for him to be able to find that puck and get that goal for us," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. Later, on a third-period power play, Neal found some space to the right of Anderson, collected a "wide" attempt by Crosby off the back boards, and put it into the open side with a crisp one-timer.
Neal's always been a streaky scorer. With a date in the conference finals around the corner, this is a pretty convenient time for him to find his touch.
• Anybody but Crosby shoots that puck off the boards from 15 feet out and I'm wondering how he could have missed the net from that distance. But Sid? Watch the replay and tell me it doesn't look like he intentionally tried to bank it off the wall to Neal.
That was the kind of magic that Crosby was working all night. He was a man on a mission, dominating in the face-off circle (after being embarrassed by Turris in Game 3, he won 65 percent of his draws tonight), creating chances out of nothing and scoring one of the most brilliant goals of the playoffs. On a nifty individual effort, he dropped Chris Phillips to his knees with a nasty toe drag before baffling Anderson with a backhand to the top corner. Just a dynamic performance from the game's best player.
• Loved Daniel Alfredsson's effort in these last two contests. His tying goal in the final minute of Game 3. His sweet stretch pass to set up Michalek's breakaway goal in this one. Even the deft deflection of Erik Karlsson's point blast for the meaningless third goal when the game was long out of reach. This was a never-say-die performance from the captain…
…Which makes what happened after the game so odd. When asked if the Sens would be able to overcome their 3-1 series deficit, he responded bluntly, saying, "Probably not. They have too much depth...[and] we don’t have much going for us right now." He later added that "We're going to go out and play one hell of a game" on Friday, but you have to wonder how his comments will go over in the room.
Not that anyone in there is kidding himself. The Pens have proven their superiority. But it's still the first team to win four, not three, that takes the series. And no one wants to hear the captain is running up the white flag until after the handshake line.
Alfredsson has been so brilliant for so long for this team -- the goal was his 100th career playoff point -- but this bout of brutal honesty would make for a lousy epitaph if this ends up being his last home game.
• There weren't many Senators who draped themselves in glory tonight. After a solid first game back, Jason Spezza looked pretty much like a guy who'd spent the last four months on IR. Karlsson, clearly not 100 percent, either, was a step slow all night. Sergei Gonchar was every bit as bad as his minus-4 suggests, and he was in the box when Neal scored Pittsburgh's backbreaking fourth goal. Michalek may have been going 20 m.p.h. on his breakaway goal (or 33 km/h, according to Hockey Night In Canada), but he looked like he was stuck in neutral as he dawdled behind Iginla during the pivotal third marker.
And then there was Anderson. He was brilliant in the opening minutes, stoning Malkin, Crosby and Iginla while sending a message to his teammates that he was ready to steal this one like he had Game 3. But even he eventually sagged under the weight of Pittsburgh's relentless attack, and midway through the second, after allowing the goals to Kunitz and Neal just 40 seconds apart, his physical and mental exhaustion was obvious. No need for an autopsy on Ottawa's season when this thing comes to an end. The cause of death is apparent to anyone who watched: overreliance on their star goaltender.
• While the veterans crumbled, the play of some of the team's youngsters offered hope for the future. Jean-Gabriel Pageau came a well-rung post away from tying the game in the second, and brought his usual energy to the attack. Jakob Silfverberg led the Sens with five shots and somehow finished a plus-1 on the night. And Mark Stone, making his season debut, showed drive and creativity that hinted at a regular role next season, possibly alongside Spezza.
• Ottawa coach Paul MacLean might find himself lighter in the wallet after refusing to take questions from reporters after the game. Instead, he stood at the podium and held up the stat sheet.