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Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby celebrates after scoring a decisive goal on Senators goalie Martin Gerber in the third period of Game 3 in Kanata, Ont. The Penguins defeated the Senators 4-1 to take a 3-0 lead in the series. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Associated Press))

Pittsburgh Penguins fans, not to mention 90 per cent of hockey commentators, are already heading for the broom closet.

They're predicting a four-game sweep of one of the NHL's major post-season letdowns, the crestfallen Ottawa Senators.

The Sens will try to avoid first-round elimination in front of their own fans at Scotiabank Place, where they host the Penguins for Game 4 of their Eastern Conference quarter-final on Wednesday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. ET).

Fall from on high

After going 15-2 for the best season opening in NHL history, then collapsing in one of the most disappointing finishes in league memory, the Senators have one last chance to assert their identity as a hockey club.

They will emerge from this series either as the franchise that contended for the Stanley Cup last year, sat in second place behind the Detroit Red Wings for the majority of the 2007-08 regular season and hit a little bad luck in the first round against a young, surging Penguins franchise or they will be viewed as chokers, plain and simple.

Things certainly looked dire for Ottawa in Game 3 on Monday, as the Sens gave up two goals just 78 second apart early in the third period and watched their playoff dreams slip still further out of reach.

After the top-scoring trio of captain Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza each sustained an injury in the pre-playoff stretch, the team lost a spate of games and plummeted to a three-way tie for 13th place in the NHL.

To make matters still worse, centres Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly were also sidelined heading into the post-season.

Alfredsson, who returned to the lineup for Game 3, had not played since April 3, when he took a controversial hit from Maple Leaf forward Mark Bell, injuring his knee and neck.

"It's unbelievable," Ottawa coach Bryan Murray said of Alfredsson's return. "I was told probably six weeks minimum, when he was first injured in Toronto."

Alfredsson took four shots in a first period in which Ottawa outplayed Pittsburgh, but could not beat goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who made 33 saves on the night.

Pens overwhelm Gerber

The Senators' offence has flagged against Fleury, while at the other end, a young but powerful Penguins offence has stuck it to Ottawa netminder Martin Gerber, outshooting Ottawa 127-90 and averaging more than four goals per game.

Pittsburgh's textbook play-making was there for all to see in the second period on Sunday, when the team executed a gorgeous, end-to-end, tape-to-tape rush that finished with Max Talbot beating Gerber through the five-hole.

But it was Sidney Crosby's goal 12 seconds into the third period that tipped the scale.

"When you let a star get a break like that, he usually scores and he did," said Murray. "From that point on, it looked like we didn't have the same energy and they really got going."

The Penguins continued to dominate, drawing eight minutes in Senators' penalties in the final frame.

"That's what's killing us over the last two games, without a question," said Murray. "It's all we've talked about time after time and it has a little bit to do with them having puck possession, there's no doubt about that."

Young guns take vengeance

Pittsburgh is one game away from avenging last year's first-round defeat against the Senators, when the Penguins went down 3-0 and were knocked out in five games.

Penguins enforcer Georges Laraque said this year's Penguins are a different beast.

"Well, last year we had 16 guys that had never played a playoff game and now this year we have more experience and that makes a big difference," Laraque said. "Last year a lot of guys didn't know what to expect and the next thing you know we were down three games in the series.

"Now there's no reason. Everybody's faced the playoffs, they know what it's like, they know the atmosphere and they seem to be more prepared than they were last year."

Among last year's playoff first-timers were stars Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Fleury.

"I feel a little more comfortable," said Fleury, who has allowed only four goals in three games, including a shutout in the series opener. "Last year maybe I was thinking too much. I know we have a good team. I know we have guys who play well defensively and we can get some goals."

Ottawa will now try to duplicate what only two other teams in the NHL have accomplished. Only the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and 1975 New York Islanders have come back from 3-0 series deficits.

With files from the Associated Press