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Phil Sheridan: Penguins gave in to gain Senators as foe

Two days after Double Clinch Friday came Letdown Sunday. Fans who filled the Wachovia Center expecting a fresh installment of There Will Be Blood got stuck watching Farce of the Penguins instead.

No Sidney Crosby, not much effort. The Pittsburgh Penguins paid the Flyers a huge compliment yesterday. They made it embarrassingly clear that they preferred to face the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the playoffs. After skating through the motions of a 2-0 loss to Philadelphia, the Pens will indeed face the Sens.

"I was a little surprised Crosby wasn't playing," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "I think if you look at the East, the question comes up: Who would you rather play? To me, I'm just glad we have the opportunity to play past the 82-game mark."

Stevens wasn't interested in examining the gift horse's mouth, but it isn't hard to understand the Penguins' thinking. A first-round series against the Flyers, even with home ice, figured to be a war of attrition. These two cross-state rivals beat each other senseless in most of their regular-season matchups. A first-round playoff series played at that pitch would take a lot out of a team trying to play into June.

The Penguins knew if they lost the regular-season finale, they would face Ottawa, a team that has collapsed after a great start and will be without captain Daniel Alfredsson and center Mike Fisher. So their motives were as readily apparent as their methods.

If the hockey gods were watching (and TV ratings suggest they've switched over to NASCAR on Sundays), or if karma means anything, the Penguins can and should pay a price for the way they dodged the Flyers.

But then, the Flyers didn't mind this outcome, either. They vaulted from the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference to the No. 6 slot. They will face the Washington Capitals, a team that had to win its last seven games and get help from the collapsing Carolina Hurricanes to claim a playoff berth.

That doesn't make them favorites in this first round. Hardly. The Caps' hot streak was no fluke, and they are led by one Alex Ovechkin - a breathtaking combination of size, strength, skill and spirit, and the favorite to win the league's MVP award. But this matchup isn't quite as imposing as Pittsburgh would have been.

Like the Flyers, the Capitals are a young team with little in the way of postseason experience. Washington hasn't made the playoffs since 2003. There is no legendary head coach, no battle-tested core of playoff veterans, no mystique-shrouded goaltender in the mix here. There is no New Jersey Devils-like psychological barrier.

"We haven't played them since the trade deadline," Flyers center Mike Richards said.

That's significant for two reasons. There isn't the accumulation of grudges and bruises that builds up against division rivals like the Penguins or Devils or Rangers. But the Flyers also haven't seen the Capitals since they were drastically changed by deadline moves.

The Capitals added Sergei Fedorov, goaltender Cristobal Huet and winger Matt Cooke. The Caps' record since Feb. 26: 15-4. Huet has won his last nine starts. Fedorov had eight points during the seven-game streak to close the regular season.

Mostly, though, there is Ovechkin.

"He's the best player in the league," Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen said with the air of a man asked what color the sky is. "What else can you say about him?"

"He's tough to play against," said center Jeff Carter, who generally faces the opponent's top line.

So how do you stop the man who scored 65 goals this season?

"We'll have to figure that out this week," Carter said with something like a smile.

Ovechkin is 22. He is going to be a superstar in this league for a very long time. His name is almost certainly going to be engraved on the Stanley Cup before he's through.

But it's also true that it often takes young superstars a couple of trips to the playoffs to get the feel for the intensity. The Penguins' Crosby and Evgeni Malkin made their much-hyped debuts last year and were rudely flushed out by Ottawa in the first round.

It will be up to the Flyers to make this Ovechkin's postseason baptism by fire. That has to be their approach as they try to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since their 2004 journey to the seventh game of the conference finals.

They're here. After finishing with the worst record in the league, and in franchise history, last season, they're going to the playoffs. Make the most of it.

Maybe they will get a chance to play those Penguins in a later round.

Better yet, if the hockey gods have any say, they will get a chance to play Ottawa.

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Or by e-mail: psheridan@phillynews.com.

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