By Will Graves
Eight playoff wins down, eight to go for Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
James Neal had a hat trick and the Penguins finished off the lifeless Ottawa Senators 6-2 on Friday night in Game 5 of the Eastern conference semifinals to take the best-of-seven series 4-1.
Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin and Brenden Morrow also scored, and Tomas Vokoun made 29 saves as top-seeded Pittsburgh strolled to the next round.
The Penguins will face Boston or the New York Rangers in the conference finals.
Milan Michalek and Kyle Turris scored for Ottawa. Craig Anderson stopped 27 shots, but the Senators simply couldn’t keep up as the Penguins ended the Ottawa’s season for the third time in the last five years.
The Penguins expected desperation from a team trying to extend its season for at least another 48 hours. Instead, the Senators offered only resignation.
Outskated, outshot and outworked from the opening faceoff, Ottawa put up little resistance as Pittsburgh moved on to the conference finals for the first time since 2009, when the franchise won its third Stanley Cup.
The series win was the seventh for the Penguins under coach Dan Bylsma but the first deciding victory to come on home ice. Pittsburgh had gone 0-6 at home in potential series enders, something Bylsma’s players insisted was an anomaly.
Pittsburgh made sure a trip to Canada for Game 6 wouldn’t be necessary, turning Ottawa forward Daniel Alfredsson into a prophet of sorts. The NHL’s longest-tenured captain said the Senators “probably” couldn’t rally to win the series after a 7-3 home loss in Game 4 on Wednesday night.
Alfredsson clarified his remarks Thursday, insisting his team still had a chance.
It didn’t take long for slim to turn into none.
Sluggish from the opening faceoff, the Senators slogged through the game’s first 10 minutes, long enough for Morrow to pay immediate dividends in his return to the lineup.
The veteran forward was scratched from Game 4 in favor of rookie Beau Bennett but appeared re-energized after the night off. He scored his second goal of the playoffs 6:25 into the first period while scoring the kind of goal the Penguins expected out of him when they acquired the 34-year-old from Dallas just before the trade deadline.
Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke beat a Senator to a loose puck along the halfboards then zipped a cross-ice pass to defenseman Mark Eaton. Morrow skated to the net and lifted his stick up to draw Eaton’s attention. Eaton patiently waited for Morrow to get in front of the crease before throwing a puck toward the net that deflected off Morrow’s skate and into the net.
The goal was held up on review and the Senators found themselves in familiar position: trailing.
Ottawa came into the game having led for just 17 minutes in regulation during the entire series, all in Game 4 before Pittsburgh buried the Senators with a four-goal onslaught in the third period.
This time, the deluge came a little earlier.
Neal scored for the third time in two games when he poked in an idle rebound on the power play to put Pittsburgh up 2-0 7:38 into the second period. Letang followed with a wrist shot over Anderson’s glove at the end of a 3-on-2 break to make it 3-0.
Michalek briefly made it competitive with a beautiful deke around Vokoun to pull the Senators to 3-1 with 3:48 left in the second but Malkin scored his fourth goal of the playoffs on a breakaway just before the intermission to restore the three-goal lead.
Ottawa hadn’t overcome a deficit bigger than one goal in the postseason and Neal ensured there would be no meltdown by the Penguins. A pair of sizzling wrist shots in the third period gave him his first career playoff hat trick and sent the Penguins roaring into hockey’s final four.
NOTES: Pittsburgh went 1 for 3 on the power play and improved to 6-0 when it outscores an opponent on special teams in the postseason. ... Ottawa fell to 0-6 in franchise history when it falls behind 3-1 in a series.