First-round breakdown: Senators vs. Penguins
All eyes will be on Sidney Crosby and his band of young guns in their first NHL playoff competition. The Penguins matured well ahead of schedule and blazed a path to the playoffs behind Crosby, who won his first NHL scoring title, rookie of the year shoo-in Evgeni Malkin (85 points, nine more than Colorado's Paul Stastny) and Jordan Staal, who could earn a spot on the rookie ballot with his 29-goal performance and emergence as a top-notch penalty killer.
The Penguins face a Senators team long on playoff disappointment but equally long on experience and motivation. Ray Emery has made Ottawa fans forget Dominik Hasek and Patrick Lalime, and Dany Heatley has emerged as a mature, two-way player who can score like crazy. This series boasts a plethora of story lines and should provide some memorable moments.
1. The Senators' mojo.
Or lack thereof. A year ago, the conference's top team sailed through the first round, waxing Tampa in five games. It then blew a tire against a faster, more focused Buffalo team and was dispatched in five in the second round. The theory is this is a psychologically fragile Senators team that has a tendency to cave when the going gets tough. Until the Sens prove otherwise, that is their legacy.
2. The Gary Roberts factor.
When the Penguins acquired the rugged veteran at the trade deadline, the expectation was Roberts would provide the kind of dressing room presence that would offset the Penguins' stunning lack of experience. Roberts has a Stanley Cup ring and an impressive leadership r?sum? backing up those expectations. That's why the Senators and Maple Leafs tried desperately to get him at the deadline, too. If Roberts can cause havoc up front with his rambunctious play (and how many 40-year-olds get to be called rambunctious?) and keep panic from seeping into the dressing room when things get tough, he'll have more than earned his keep and the Penguins will be difficult to deal with.
3. What about Wade Redden?
The Senators made a kind of catch-22 decision in the offseason, signing blue-chip defender Redden over Zdeno Chara, who signed an enormous deal with Boston. It made eminent sense. But Redden has been hampered all season by groin problems that have limited him to just 64 games. His 36 points are his lowest total since 2001-02, when he had 34. Redden still leads the team in average ice time per night, and his strength is being a puck-moving defenseman who can jump into the play offensively as well as help control the back end of the power play. If he can't do that effectively, the Senators will be missing a valuable piece to the puzzle.
4. The Penguins' blue line.
At least one Eastern Conference scout said he simply doesn't think a blue line that includes unproven players such as Rob Scuderi, Alain Nasreddine and Josef Melichar can go far in the playoffs. Many thought that of the Carolina Hurricanes' defense a season ago, too, but we digress. Still, the point is a valid one. The Penguins give up a lot of chances and are especially susceptible to a strong forecheck. The Senators, second among all playoff teams in goals scored, have enough fire power to make the Pens pay dearly for mistakes.
5. The Crosby factor.
Oh, yeah, him. The Senators, as most teams do, will try to make life difficult for Crosby physically, and they'll try to reduce the time and space he has in the neutral zone, which is where the team's offensive jump is generated. Watch for the rest of the Penguins' offensive crew to take cues from Crosby. If he has early success, the team's confidence will grow exponentially and the Pens will be tough to stop.
? Marc-Andre Fleury vs. Ray Emery.
We know, we know, goalies don't really play against each other, at least that's what the goalies will tell you. But that's a lot of bumph. Last season, Emery was thrust into the starter's role for the Sens after Hasek couldn't answer the bell. He was mostly terrific, although his lamentable performance in Game 1 of the second round seemed, somehow, to shake the Senators to the core. The 24-year-old has been stellar all season, establishing himself as the clear No. 1 guy in Ottawa and more than earning the confidence of his teammates.
Meanwhile, Fleury, 22, finally has started to show the stuff that made him the first overall pick in the 2003 draft. His 40 wins were third-most among all NHL netminders. He is acrobatic and has quick reflexes. Now, he has to prove he has the head to win in the playoffs. If Fleury falters, the Pens will turn to Jocelyn Thibault, who had a surprising second half as Fleury's backup (Thibault allowed more than three goals just once in his last 10 appearances).
: Crosby has 12 points in the past seven games. Veteran forward Mark Recchi scored in two of the last three games but had gone 20 before that without a marker.
: Heatley, who topped the 100-point mark for the second straight season, has become a more complete player this campaign, spending significantly more time on the penalty kill and in crucial game situations. Defenseman Andrej Meszaros is a team-worst minus-15 and was a plus in just two of the past 10 games. He was plus-34 a season ago.
It might not be what the big brains at the NHL would like to see, but the Senators' experience and talented back end prove the difference in a surprisingly short series.
Ottawa in five.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.