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Starkey: Expect sparks when Pens-Sens meet

| Saturday, May 11, 2013, 10:15 p.m.
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The Senators' Zach Smith (right) fights the Penguins' Robert Bortuzzo during the first period Monday, April 22, 2013.
Islanders defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky (11) defends Penguins center Evgeni Malkin (71) as Penguins left wing Matt Cooke gains control of the puck behind the Islanders' net in the first period on Saturday, May 11, 2013, at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y.

This should be interesting.

For teams that really aren't rivals, the Penguins and Ottawa Senators have developed quite the rivalry — replete with verbal jousting, “WANTED” posters, Gary Roberts-level rage and even an alleged forensic investigation.

This will mark the teams' fourth playoff meeting in seven years.

The storylines are especially juicy.

Start with Matt Cooke, obviously, the man whose mug appears on “WANTED” posters in the Ottawa cheering sections. It's part of the creatively titled “Matt Cooke Hate Fest” that erupted after Cooke injured star defenseman Erik Karlsson in February.

The Senators made it clear they didn't think the play was an accident.

“It's Matt Cooke. What else should I say?” said Ottawa's excitable general manager, Bryan Murray. “Watch the replay.”

Everyone who mattered watched the replay — and concluded that Cooke's skate blade unintentionally sliced into Karlsson's Achilles. Eugene Melnyk, the Senators' equally excitable, Barbados-based owner, vehemently disagreed.

Exhibiting a Ray Finkle-like obsession with his subject, Melnyk commissioned “experts” in Toronto to launch a “forensic” investigation into whether Cooke's act was premeditated.

No word on the results.

Murray, by the way, has a history with Sidney Crosby. It dates to Crosby's rookie year, when Murray was coaching the Senators and the two had a verbal in-game spat. Murray accused Crosby of using foul language (oh, the horror).

“Why would I yell at Bryan Murray?” Crosby said at the time. “That's what I want to know.”

Last season, in Crosby's third game back from a 10-month absence, he was called for an elbow to Nick Foligno's head. The Penguins accused Foligno of going after Marc-Andre Fleury. Murray accused the Penguins of being hypocrites, in light of their defending Crosby's move after being vocal proponents of preventing head injuries.

The most significant storyline here is the Senators gaining serious momentum since losing to the Penguins' JV team April 22. But first a few others:

• Ottawa defenseman Sergei Gonchar was a vital member of the Penguins' 2009 Cup team and a father figure to Evgeni Malkin.

• Penguins GM Ray Shero cut his teeth as Senators' assistant GM from 1993-98. He worked under his current assistant director of amateur scouting, Randy Sexton, who not only was GM but also one of the Senators' founders (somebody should ask Sexton if he ever thought of launching a forensic investigation into the repeated big-game disappearances of Alexandre Daigle).

• Many Penguins veterans got their playoff baptism in Ottawa. It did not go well. The older, wiser Senators ambushed them in Game 1 in '07.

• Ottawa optometrist Dr. Janet Leduc, quite incredibly, got Fleury to switch pad colors from yellow to white by writing him in 2008. Given the way things went in the Islanders series, maybe he should switch back to yellow.

• Notable events from the teams' previous 15 playoff games: Pascal Dupuis winning the '10 series with a Game 6 overtime goal; Crosby scoring his first playoff winner in Game 2 in '07 (on a mid-air tip); Senators winning a three-overtime marathon here in '10 (Matt Carkner, of all people, scored); and Gary Roberts losing his mind at the end of Game 1 in '08.

Roberts nearly fought four Senators players. By then, the Penguins were quite familiar with Roberts' death stare. As Tyler Kennedy put it, “He's a very intense man.”

This should be a very intense series, mostly because the #peskysens (popular Twitter hashtag for Senators) are rolling. They outscored the Canadiens, 20-9, and appear ready to welcome back injured star Jason Spezza.

Ottawa has a well-rounded defense, a bright new face up front in hometown hero Jean-Gabriel Pageau and maybe the best goaltending they've ever had in the form of Craig Anderson, a journeyman who, a la Tim Thomas, has discovered life in his 30s.

Oh, and they have quite the colorful coach in Paul MacLean, who was unfortunately dubbed a “bug-eyed, fat walrus” by Montreal's Brandon Prust in Round 1 and who took to referring to Canadiens players by their numbers. Example: P.K. Subban was “Player 76.”

MacLean also delivered the line of the playoffs after calling timeout with 18 seconds left in a 6-1, Game 3 rout. Michel Therrien charged MacLean with trying to humiliate the Canadiens.

Replied MacLean: “They did a pretty good job of that themselves.”

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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