Senators on the brink

In a season full of unpredictability, unlikely stories and unexpected heroes, the Ottawa Senators now face the ultimate challenge.

Senators on the brink
James Neal of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores his second goal on Craig Anderson of the Ottawa Senators during third period action in the fourth game of the Eastern Conference semifinal at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa, May 22, 2013. (Jean Levac/OTTAWA CITIZEN)

In a season full of unpredictability, unlikely stories and unexpected heroes, the Ottawa Senators now face the ultimate challenge.

Following Wednesday’s 7-3 romp by the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Senators must now win three consecutive games in order to salvage their season. A victory Friday back in Pittsburgh — where the Penguins dominated the Senators in the opening two games of the series — will end the year.

Even if the Senators are able to figure out a way to defeat the Penguins in Game 5, they would have to follow it up with wins back at Scotiabank Place Sunday and in Pittsburgh next Tuesday.

When asked if the Senators can deliver a hat trick of wins over the Penguins, Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson was remarkably candid.

“Probably not,” he said. “I mean, with their depth and power play right now, it doesn’t look too good for us.”

The Penguins blew open what had been a tight game, scoring four times in the third period to romp to a 7-3 in front of a sellout crowd of 20,500 at Scotiabank Place.

The Penguins offensive stars flexed their offensive muscles, with James Neal and Jarome Iginla scoring twice and Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz adding singles. Milan Michalek, Kyle Turris and Alfredsson scored for the Senators.

Alfredsson was almost at a loss to explain what happened, saying the Senators knew that in order to seriously get back in the series, they had to win Wednesday. He says the team was guilty of giving the Penguins way too many “freebies” by by giving away the puck repeatedly in the neutral zone.

Senators coach Paul MacLean didn’t even take questions. He pointed to the game sheet, said “it’s all in there.”

He then offered up, “we’re going to Pittsburgh and we’re coming to play.”

Alfredsson, after his rather surprising comment extolling the Penguins’ virtues, offered a similar comment: “We’re going to go out and play one hell of a game.”

Wednesday’s game could very well have been the final Senators contest until next September, when exhibition games for the 2013-14 season start. To their credit, Senators fans were on their feet in the final seconds, waving white towels in appreciation for the season.

“We’ve got to hand it to them, we’ve got some classy fans here,” said defenceman Marc Methot. “They were still standing up for us at the end of the game. That just goes to show you the kind of character they have for us and they deserve a lot better.”

As impressive as the Penguins were in the final period — Anderson made way for Robin Lehner following the sixth Pittsburgh goal — the Senators actually led 2-1 after the first period and appeared on the verge of knocking Penguins goaltender Tomas Vokoun out of the game. Anderson was outstanding in keeping the Senators ahead in the first period.

But Kunitz and Iginla erased that lead with goals 40 seconds apart early in the second period, giving the Penguins a 3-2 lead.

After Neal (on a power play) and Dupuis (shorthanded) scored early in the third, the result was no longer in doubt.

The Senators were kicking themselves for not getting enough shots on Vokoun and for falling asleep early in the second and third periods.

How to explain the second period brain cramps?

Somehow, the Penguins had a 2-on-0 breakaway behind Sergei Gonchar and Jared Cowen and Kunitz made the Senators pay with a shot between Anderson’s legs. Then came the Iginla goal, after Anderson misplayed Kris Letang’s bad angle shot, leaving the puck in the slot for the former Calgary Flames star, who didn’t miss his one-foot putt.

The Senators had plenty of chances to get even in the second period. Early in the middle frame, Jean-Gabriel Pageau hit the post. In the final minute, Jason Spezza — on the Senators’ first power play late in the second period — beat Vokoun, but not the post.

“It’s a game of inches, especially for us,” said Spezza. “That ties the game up (if I score), so moments like that are always big in the game.”

Twitter.com/Citizenkwarren

GAME FILE

CHEERS

James Neal, Penguins

Neal scored twice, including a back-breaking power play goal 1:59 into the third period that gave Pittsburgh its 4-2 lead.

JEERS

The Senators’ collapses early in the second and third periods, allowing the Penguins to take control of the game.

WHY THEY LOST

The two-goal, 40-second lapse early in the second period will give the Senators nightmares. So, too, will their inability to cash in against Tomas Vokoun, who continues to play hot potato with the puck.

HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN?

With the Senators leading 2-1 early in the second period, Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin both slipped behind Jared Cowen and Sergei Gonchar. Kunitz took a Pascal Dupuis pass and beat Craig Anderson between the legs to tie the game 2-2.

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