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Even with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins were heavy underdogs going into their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the Ottawa Senators.
The tables clearly have turned.
In a playoff rematch, the Atlantic Division champion and second-seeded Penguins (47-27-8) meet the Senators (43-31-8) in Game 1 on Wednesday night at Mellon Arena.
At 19, Crosby became the youngest scoring champion in NHL history last season with 120 points, and Malkin added 85 en route to winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. The two helped the Penguins return to the postseason for the first time since 2001.
Pittsburgh's run was short-lived. After splitting the first two games of the series, the Penguins managed just three goals in losing the final three games while the Senators went on to represent the East in the Stanley Cup finals.
"It's payback for us," Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal said. "The guys in this dressing room know we can do it. What better test than Ottawa?"
Though the Senators took three of four from Pittsburgh in 2007-08, Ottawa's Wade Redden said the Penguins now have valuable playoff experience to draw on.
"They're a year better," he said. "They've got some young guys that got their first taste last year."
This season, the Penguins overcame a slow start and dealt with ankle injuries to Crosby while watching Malkin develop from budding star to difference-maker.
Pittsburgh was 8-11-2 after its first 21 games. But starting with a 6-5 overtime win over Ottawa on Thanksgiving night in which the Penguins rallied from a two-goal deficit, they went 39-16-6 the rest of the way to enter the playoffs as division champions for the first time in a decade.
A high ankle sprain limited Crosby to 53 games this season, but he still scored 24 goals and was the team's second-leading scorer with 72 points. Malkin had a team-high 47 goals and his 106 points ranked behind only Washington's Alex Ovechkin for the league lead.
In the 28 games Crosby missed starting in January, Malkin had 20 goals and 24 assists. That stretch saw Pittsburgh go 16-8-4, with Malkin totaling at least three points in nine of those games.
"(Malkin) has the confidence to make plays and more moves," Ottawa's Chris Phillips said. "This year, they definitely have a few more dimensions we have to be aware of. ... You have to be in their face as much as possible and limit their time with the puck."
Another player the Penguins will count on after an injury-plagued season is goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The top overall pick in the 2003 NHL draft also missed 28 games with a high ankle sprain, but has gone 10-2-1 with a 1.45 goals-against average since returning on March 2.
If Fleury's ankle acts up again, coach Michel Therrien could go with Ty Conklin, who won his first nine starts after Fleury went down and was 18-8-5 with a 2.51 GAA and two shutouts in 33 games.
Ottawa's first season after reaching the Stanley Cup finals was marked by a record-setting start, a coaching change and injuries down the stretch that could have them going home early.
With John Paddock taking over for general manager Bryan Murray as coach, the Senators opened this season by winning 13 of their first 14, an NHL record. Ottawa improved to 29-10-4 after defeating Detroit on Jan. 12 in what some saw as a Stanley Cup finals preview.
Less than seven weeks later - and after consecutive shutout losses - Paddock was fired and replaced by Murray as he barely kept Ottawa in the playoff race. After the win over the Red Wings, the Senators went 14-21-5, including an 0-14-0 mark when failing to score at least two goals.
Those numbers are surprising, considering Ottawa had one the league's most potent scoring lines in Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley. The trio combined for 115 goals and 148 assists while the rest of the team managed 143 goals and 293 assists.
"We're well aware that no one is picking us to win this series," said Spezza, who led Ottawa with 58 assists and 92 points. "I don't see a lot of people that believe in us. We've got a bad rap the last month or so here, but we feel differently about our team. We still have the manpower here."
Actually, they don't. Alfredsson, second on the team with 89 points, hasn't played since suffering an upper body injury following a clean but vicious open-ice collision with Toronto's Mark Bell on April 3. Mike Fisher, who had 23 goals, injured his knee in the same game, and Murray said both players are expected to miss "weeks."
Murray also accused the Penguins of tanking their season finale, a 2-0 loss to Philadelphia on Sunday, to set up this rematch.
"I knew what was going on," Murray said. "You guys all know they wanted to play Ottawa. That's fine. Obviously (the Penguins) think that we're a better team to play at this moment. It's a challenge. It doesn't matter what we say or do now. We've got to play our best hockey of the year without a question and find a way to compete each and every game and each and every shift."
Martin Gerber is expected to start in goal for the Senators. He won only once in his final five starts, but finished 30-18-4 with a 2.72 GAA and two shutouts. Backup Ray Emery didn't start after Feb. 28, and was 12-13-4 with a 3.13 GAA in 31 games, including 26 starts.
Game 2 is scheduled for Friday night in Pittsburgh.