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Pens' young stars better respond

| Thursday, April 12, 2007

OTTAWA -- Welcome to the playoffs, boys.

Wow. What an initiation.

The Ottawa Senators humiliated the bumbling Penguins in every conceivable fashion Wednesday night in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.

And that was just in the first seven minutes.

It wouldn't get much better, as the Senators rolled to a 6-3 victory.

Ottawa manhandled the Penguins from the first shift, ruined their power play, bombarded goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury -- who morphed into Marc-Andre Flustered by the time he was pulled midway through the third period -- and generally left the impression that this series could be shorter than coach Bryan Murray's fuse.

Yeah, it was only one game, but the Penguins will be looking at a must-win situation Sunday night at Mellon Arena if they don't radically transform themselves and win Game 2 on Saturday.

It could happen, but only if the team's young stars adjust overnight to the head-bashing reality of playoff hockey. Maybe there's a witch doctor somewhere in Ottawa who can help with that.

Jordan Staal played a decent game, but his fellow five-star youngsters Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Ryan Whitney and Evgeni Malkin played like they'd never encountered such a scene. Which, of course, they hadn't.

Scotiabank Place was packed with delirious Senators fans all decked in red.

Malkin got decked on his first shift, when tiny Mike Comrie pounded him like a nail into the corner boards deep in the Penguins' end. A few seconds later, Ottawa led, 1-0.

Malkin played one good shift -- midway through the second period. For much of the night, he looked as if he didn't want the puck, probably because he knew touching it would mean pain. He didn't even register a shot.

The way Crosby gets bottled up against this team, Malkin becomes that much more critical to the Penguins' chances.

As for Crosby, he made a handful of un-Crosby-like plays through the first two periods, showing obvious signs of tightness.

The Kid has a major problem on his hands. Two of them, actually.

Murray sends out hulking defenseman Chris Phillips and his built-like-a-boulder partner, Anton Volchenkov, every time Crosby hits the ice.

Those two combined for 10 hits, a good many on Crosby. Volchenkov also delivered a symbolic hit at 13:04 of the second period, nearly depositing Gary Roberts into the Senators bench.

Several hours before the game, somebody asked Crosby about his lack of success against the Senators. He came in with one goal in seven career games against them.

"Maybe the points haven't been there against them," Crosby said, "but I haven't felt shut down."

That mindset might have changed by the end of the second period, by which time Crosby had only one shot. He had a goal disallowed on a kick 23 seconds into the third period and scored a meaningless goal in the final minute.

The lack of punch on Crosby's wings might get badly exposed in this series. Not only does he have to contend with that and with Ottawa's bash brothers, but also with the most dynamic line in the league.

Murray likes to use Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza against Crosby's line.

In the face of such firepower, maybe it's time Penguins coach Michel Therrien puts Crosby and Malkin back together.

Fleury actually didn't play that badly, considering he spent much of the night serving as Daniel Alfredsson's personal clay pigeon. Alfredsson directed 13 shots at Fleury, eight of them on goal. Incredibly, he didn't score.

Maybe somebody on the visiting team could take a lesson from the Senators and try to hit Alfredsson next game.

By the middle of the third period, the Senators were taking unimpeded runs at everyone in sight.

Christoph Schubert, for example, detonated Sergei Gonchar twice in a matter of seconds, and all Gonchar could do was turn and complain to the referee.

No use in that. This is a problem the Penguins need to fix themselves.

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