By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins are halfway to the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup.
Pittsburgh is headed back to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2009, overwhelming the Ottawa Senators and closing out the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series following a 6-2 victory during Game 5 Friday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“Anytime you win, it’s fun and exciting,” said Penguins’ forward James Neal, who recorded his first career playoff hat trick. “We have a great group of guys in the locker room that come to the rink with smiles on their faces and enjoy it.
“It’s a great atmosphere to be around, we have a lot of fun with it and it shows on the ice.”
Pittsburgh, which won the series 4-1, put it away early, taking a three-goal lead after two periods as the highest scoring team in the playoffs netted four goals on just 21 shots.
Neal, with five goals the past two games, led the charge with the 13th hat trick in team history, effectively ending the series with a pair of third-period goals, the final one he pulled into his skates, away from Norris Trophy defenseman Erik Karlsson before unleashing a wicked wrist shot past Senators’ goaltender Craig Anderson.
“He’s got the capability with the way he shoots the puck and the way he can hold onto it,” Crosby said. “He can definitely score in bunches, he’s proven that before, and it’s pretty difficult to do in the playoffs.”
Evgeni Malkin, Brenden Morrow, and Kris Letang also found the back of the net for the Penguins, who are the first team to advance to a conference final.
Pittsburgh will face the Boston Bruins or New York Rangers in an Eastern Conference final series that begins next week. Boston holds a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven semifinal against New York.
“I think at this point, whoever you play it’s going to be a pretty tough series,” Crosby said. “Anyone who gets this far it’s for good reason so we have to take this time to rest up but also prepare for whoever that might be.”
Pittsburgh advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for the third time in six years, clinching a series at Consol Energy Center for the first time. It was also the first time the Penguins closed out a series at home since routing the Philadelphia Flyers, 5-0, in Game 5 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals at the now-razed Civic Arena.
All six of Pittsburgh’s post-season victories under head coach Dan Bylsma have come in the road as the Penguins were previously 0-6 at home in potential series-clinching wins before Friday.
“You want to close every series,” Letang said. “When you finish, home or away, it doesn’t matter as long as you win.”
The Penguins grabbed a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series following a 7-3 rout Wednesday during Game 4, erupting for four goals in the third period, overwhelming the Senators with a swarming attack, aggressive forecheck and brilliant display of offensive firepower.
“When you’re making their defensemen turn and go back for pucks it wears them down,” Neal said. “We did that all series and the results show.”
Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson insists he wasn’t surrendering after Game 4 when he said his team “probably” can’t win three straight against the Penguins, but the Senators didn’t display much life in Game 5. Milan Michalek cut the Penguins’ second-period lead to 3-1 and Kyle Turris added a third-period goal.
Pittsburgh shut down the lifeless Senators defensively and goaltender Tomas Vokoun took care of the rest, stopping 29 shots for his sixth playoff win in seven games, tying Ron Tugnutt for fifth on the franchise’s all-time postseason wins list. Vokoun, unbeaten at home in the playoffs with a .955 save percentage entering the game, is 16-2 in his last 18 decisions
Anderson, who was pulled twice in five games, stopped 27 shots on Friday.
Morrow staked the Penguins’ to a 1-0 lead a little more than six minutes into the game, set up by Matt Cooke and Mark Eaton. The Penguins have scored the first goal eight of their last nine home playoff games, including six straight.
Cooke found Eaton entering the zone from the point, and hit a wide-open Morrow at the top of the crease, who tapped the puck off his skate past an out-of-position Anderson for a goal that held up after a video review.
Pittsburgh needed another video review for its second goal, which came on the power-play at 12:22 of the second period to make it 2-0.
Letang flipped the puck off Anderson’s body from behind the goal-line and Neal rushed to the far post, pushing a loose rebound into the net.
No video review was needed for the Penguins’ third goal, scored by Letang just 33 seconds into a four-on-four.
Letang took a pass above the hash marks, along the boards from Tyler Kennedy, cut into the slot and roofed a shot, top-shelf over Anderson’s glove, giving the Penguins’ a 3-0 advantage.
Michalek gave the Senators’ life, scoring one second after an Ottawa power-play expired, to cut the Penguins’ lead to 3-1, but it didn’t last long.
Malkin put the Penguins ahead, 4-1, on another four-on-four, beating Anderson on a breakaway with 29.2 seconds left in the second period.
Malkin forced a center-ice turnover to Neal, and he dealt the puck back to the reigning NHL MVP, who got behind the defense, beating Anderson above his blocker with a wrist shot.
“When we put ourselves in a position like this, you want to capitalize on it,” Neal said. “We came out with desperation to win and you saw that from the puck drop. We were physical, putting pucks on net, and special teams got us a few big goals.
“It’s a huge team effort and it feels good.”
NOTES: The Penguins are 21-4 when scoring first in an elimination game. They have scored three or more goals in nine straight home playoff games…Pittsburgh scored at least one power-play goal in each of its last eight home games…Letang’s goal tied him with Martin Straka for eighth on the franchise post-season point list with 46. He is first among NHL defensemen in scoring… Crosby, Malkin, and Letang, with 15 points, are tied for second-most in the league behind Boston’s David Krejci, who has 17…Kennedy has 14 points in his last 18 playoff games.