On Friday, the Western Conference Finals began with a 3-2 overtime victory for the Nashville Predators over the Anaheim Ducks. On Saturday night, the Eastern Conference followed suit. Let’s preview the matchup even closer:
The last time the Ottawa Senators faced the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs was in 2013 where the Sens were defeated in five games in the semifinals. The last time the Senators made it to the ECF was in 2007. Then, Ottawa became Eastern Conference Champions before losing to the Ducks in the Stanley Cup Finals. This year, Canada’s last remaining franchise must pass through the reigning Stanley Cup Champions.
The Penguins narrowly defeated the Washington Capitals in the semifinals. It took seven games to decide the matchup, and the Pens almost blew a 3-1 series lead. Despite a major concussion scare (or two) from Captain Sidney Crosby, the Pens resisted Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps just enough to advance on the road in Washington.
What made the Pens so successful thus far has been production from not just Crosby, but other stars who have stepped up as well in a big way. Evgeni Malkin leads all playoff players with 18 points. Phil Kessel is tied for first among all playoff players with four power play goals. Kessel’s premier stat is indicative of the man-advantage as well. Pens lead the four remaining teams in power play success with a 21.6% conversion rate.
The Pens are even getting production from youngster Jake Guentzel, who leads all playoff performers with nine goals. The 22-year old rookie pivot also has five assists this postseason.
With all the offensive weapons the Penguins can throw towards the Senators, the Sens’ defense will have exactly zero room for error. Sens will have to continue to deploy their 1-3-1 neutral zone trap system when not in possession of the puck in order to slow down the Pens’ attack. But if one man is up for the task to lead Ottawa into battle, it’s going to be Erik Karlsson.
Karlsson has consistently been a rock for the franchise, especially this postseason. In two rounds, the Swedish-native has 11 points. While he has registered nine assists, his only two goals have been game-deciders. His first decided the opening game against the New York Rangers, while his latter decided the entire second-round series. Erik Karlsson has been playing almost as if he never had a hairline fracture in his heel…
Karlsson isn’t alone in coming up big, though. Derick Brassard scored the game-tying goal in game five with under 90 seconds to play while Kyle Turris put one away in overtime to retake the series lead at 3-2. Jean-Gabriel Pageau has played incredibly thus far, including his four-goal performance in game two against the Rangers.
Luckily for the Senators, the Penguins have the highest shots allowed per game average with 35.3. Being that the Sens have no fear crashing the net and creating chaos, such a strategy could be the key to success against the powerhouse Penguins.
Aside from even-strength play, and as always, special teams with be pivotal this series. While the Pens have the best power play success, the Senators are better on the penalty that the Pens are, with an 87.5% kill rate. Pens have only killed off 80%. So while the Senators’ power play is only at 14.6% success, forcing the Penguins to take penalties could boost man-advantage numbers.
Both teams’ netminders have been solid. Sens’ Craig Anderson posts a goals-against average of 2.49 and a save percentage of. 914. Marc-Andre Fleury for the Penguins has a 2.55 goals-against average and a. 927 save percentage. Each has one shutout in the playoffs.
While the goaltending matchup is near even, the same goes for each team’s success in the faceoff circle. Sens have the Pens slightly edged in this regard 52.8% to 51.7%.
My prediction: The Senators have already proven that they can face top teams and advance. While Head Coach Guy Boucher believed his squad was the underdog thus far, he has curiously dropped the title against arguably the strongest team remaining. He no longer embraces the David vs. Goliath scenario, instead believing the Ottawa Senators can advance. The team also beat Pittsburgh in a thrilling 2-1 OT victory this past Saturday, a huge confidence booster for them.
But while Boucher is confident in his team, I am not so sure the Senators are strong enough to defeat the Penguins. Senators will have to play a very gritty game, taking shots at Crosby and the rest of the team to try to get them to lose their cool. But the refs will be watching. Heaven-forbid Sidney Crosby suffers another concussion – and I don’t mean that sarcastically. If the Penguins can withstand the President’s Trophy winners, they should theoretically roll through the Senators, with all due respect to Boucher’s confidence. But the Sens won’t go down without a fight, and Chris Neil might be looking to lay down the law in Pittsburgh. Pens in six.