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Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Senators vs. Penguins

Photo Courtesy Wayne Masut | Senior Staff Photographer

The Pittsburgh Penguins are no strangers to the Eastern Conference Finals. The last time the Ottawa Senators made it this far was 2007.

The Senators weren’t supposed to be here. However, they’ve managed to find a way time and time again. The defending champion Penguins continue to show why they can never be counted out. While the Pens are loaded with star power up front, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is a huge reason they’ve made it this far. On the other side, Sens captain Erik Karlsson continues to raise his game to another level.

This is the fifth time these teams will meet in the playoffs, with Pittsburgh winning three of the first four series. They last met in the second round in 2013, with the Penguins prevailing in five games. Ottawa is a huge underdog heading into this series. Do they have what it takes to pull off the upset? Let’s break this series down.

Season Series

Ottawa: 2-1-0

Pittsburgh: 1-1-1

Team Stats (Playoffs)

Ottawa: 14.6 PP% (13th), 87.5 PK% (7th), 2.83 GF/G (4th), 2.75 GA (9th)
Pittsburgh: 21.6 PP% (5th), 80.0 PK% (10th), 3.42 GF/G (1st), 2.58 GA (8th)

Advanced Stats (Playoffs)

Ottawa: 51.77 5-on-5 Shot Attempt % (6th), .917 5-on-5 Save % (13th), 7.84 5-on-5 Shooting % (5th)
Pittsburgh: 41.99 5-on-5 CF% (16th), .923 5-on-5 Sv% (11th), 9.87 5-on-5 Sh% (1st)

Playoff Team Leaders (Goals-Assists-Points)

Ottawa: Erik Karlsson (2-11-13), Bobby Ryan (4-5-9), Derick Brassard (3-6-9), Jean-Gabriel Pageau (7-0-7), Mike Hoffman (4-3-7)

Pittsburgh: Evgeni Malkin (5-13-18), Sidney Crosby (4-10-14), Jake Guentzel (9-5-14), Phil Kessel (5-8-13), Justin Schultz (2-6-8)

How They Got Here

Ottawa: Beat the Boston Bruins in six games in the opening round, followed by a six-game series win over the New York Rangers.

Pittsburgh: Dispatched the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games before needing seven games to eliminate the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals

Keys To The Series

Speed vs. Structure

The Penguins are known for their speed and puck-possession style. The Senators are known for their structured play in their own end and the neutral zone with head coach Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 system. However, Ottawa faces their stiffest challenge yet in this series. They struggled at times containing the Rangers’ speed in the second round, allowing numerous odd-man rushes. New York gets their offense by committee. Pittsburgh is a different animal, as their star players have produced as expected so far in the playoffs, and they have multiple lines they can send out to produce offense. Speaking of star power….

Containing the Opposition’s Star Players

Four of the top six point producers in the playoffs reside on the Penguins’ roster, as Evgeni Malkin (18 points), Jake Guentzel (14), Sidney Crosby (14), and Phil Kessel (13) lead the way for Pittsburgh. On the other side, Norris Trophy finalist Erik Karlsson continues to be the straw that stirs the Senators’ drink, leading the team and all defenseman in the postseason with 13 goals. New York and Boston weren’t able to contain Karlsson, but the Penguins have two lines with elite centers in Crosby and Malkin. Karlsson is a possession-driving force, but he may have his hands full against those two.

Which Goaltender Comes Through?

Last season, an injury to Marc-Andre Fleury paved the way for Matt Murray to help lead the Penguins to a Stanley Cup title. This year has seen the script flipped, as a injury to Murray during warm-ups before Game 1 in the first round led to Fleury regaining the job. Fleury has been incredible so far, facing 423 shots on goal, second most of any goalie in the postseason, while compiling a .927 save percentage. He’s a front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy. On the other side, Sens goalie Craig Anderson has been solid at times and pedestrian at others. However, he’s made some timely saves for Ottawa when they’ve needed them, especially in overtime, where the Senators are 5-1 in the playoffs. Although Ottawa plays with a lot of defensive structure, they’ll need Anderson to raise his level if they’re to pull off the upset.

Can These Teams Stay Healthy?

Crosby suffered a concussion in Game 3 against Washington, forcing him out of action for Game 4. He returned in Game 5, but had another scary incident where he collided into the boards in Game 6. His health will be paramount for the Penguins’ success going forward. Defenseman Trevor Daley also missed the end of the Washington series, as did forward Carl Hagelin. While Karlsson has been a force for Ottawa, he’s been playing the entire postseason with two stress fractures in his left heel. By the way, he’s also averaging 28:56 of ice time a night while also being a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe. Neither team can afford any more injuries to important players.

X-Factor For Each Team

Ottawa: Jean-Gabriel Pageau

Pageau has seven goals in the playoffs, six of them coming in the second round against the Rangers. Four of those six goals, including the game-winner, came in an epic 6-5 double overtime victory in Game 2 of that series. All seven of his goals have been at even strength, and with the Penguins struggling in puck possession during these playoffs, the Senators will need some more 5-on-5 magic from Pageau.

Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby

Usually you don’t think of Crosby as an x-factor, but the fact he suffered another concussion last round is definitely cause for concern. If he can stay healthy, it’ll continue to give Pittsburgh that feared one-two punch down the middle that has given so many teams problems over the years. However, if he misses any more time, the onus will fall more on Malkin and Kessel to lead the way offensively.

Final Summary

Both of these teams are different stylistically, and Pittsburgh has more star power up front, but Ottawa has been able to generate offense from multiple different sources. However, the Senators aren’t as deep as Pittsburgh up front. The Sens boast one of the best players in the world in Karlsson, but he can’t do it all himself, especially against a Penguins team that comes at you in waves.

Ottawa struggled to keep up with the Rangers at times last round, and Pittsburgh is a team that has as much speed to go along with more players capable of finishing their chances. The Pens haven’t been as proficient in puck possession in this postseason like they were last year. Despite that, it hasn’t mattered, as Fleury has been a wall in the crease. If he continues to slam the door shut, Pittsburgh will find themselves in the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight season.

PREDICTION: Penguins in five games





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