Two of the world’s best players go head to head. Will the Senators’ Cinderella playoff story finally end? Or do we underestimate them again at our peril?
THE SENATORS WIN IF…
The Senators can’t seem to shake the underdog label. They’re regularly written off and declared to have no chance at winning anything. We at THN picked them to miss the playoffs, to lose to Boston in Round 1 and to lose to New York in Round 2. It’s time to acknowledge the Sens do plenty of things well.
Obviously, Erik Karlsson is the engine driving this team. He plays almost half every game in this post-season and controls the play at both ends of the ice as much as any player on Earth today. The Sens are nowhere near the same team when he’s off the ice, but that’s why coach Guy Boucher keeps Karlsson on the ice so much. He skates the puck out of trouble. He creates major scoring chances with his stretch passes. Left winger Mike Hoffman told me earlier this season Karlsson is a joy for a scoring forward to play with because he pushes the puck forward so fast and gifts you chances with his transitions. Karlsson also has an extremely active stick on defense, and it’s been established emphatically this season he blocks shots fearlessly. Doing so, of course, has gotten him into trouble, as he’s dealing with multiple hairline fractures in his left foot.
As much as it sometimes feels like the Sens are a one-man team, that’s an oversimplification. They’re an above-average defensive club under Boucher, with good buy-in from their forwards. They’ve gotten timely scoring throughout the post-season, with six players notching three or more goals in 12 games. Goaltender Craig Anderson hasn’t been a world beater but has been solid, especially in overtime, where the Sens are 5-1 in these playoffs.
Ottawa has a superior penalty kill to Pittsburgh’s. The Sens have been the better possession club in the playoffs, too, albeit in small sample sizes against just two opponents. The Penguins have the worst possession numbers of any team in the 2017 post-season. That doesn’t tell us a ton given they’ve faced just two teams, but it does tell us they’ve been outchanced consistently, forced to rely on goaltending far more than they did last year.
THE PENGUINS WIN IF …
The Penguins have been outshot by their opponent in seven of their eight victories this post-season, and it hasn’t seemed to matter. Pittsburgh’s forward core is so talent rich, so good at finishing, that it can do a lot with a little. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are elite offensive weapons. Jake Guentzel has performed as one all season, too, while speedy Bryan Rust saves his best work for the playoffs. Four of the top seven scorers in the playoffs are Penguins. Ottawa can’t come close to matching Pittsburgh’s firepower. A defense corps missing Kris Letang, out with a herniated disc in his neck, has held its own under coach Mike’s Sullivan’s system, working to get pucks on the forwards’ sticks as quickly as possible. The simple, hardhat-wearing play of Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey summarizes what the Pens’ blueline is all about right now.
The Pens have a pretty defined goaltending edge, too. Marc-Andre Fleury has been Conn Smythe-caliber good for most of Pittsburgh’s games. He stole several against the Capitals in Round 2 and is the single biggest reason Pittsburgh has come this far. If Fleury somehow falters, regular season starter Matt Murray is healthy and ready to take back the reins. Quite the luxury to have last year’s Stanley Cup starter as a “backup” right now.
Senators: Crafty Mark Stone plays an important two-way game for Ottawa, averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time in these playoffs, which is a ton for a winger. He hasn’t gotten his offense rolling, with four goals and six points in 12 games, but he’s capable of going on monster tears. Ottawa desperately needs a top-shelf offensive performance from someone other than Erik Karlsson or even-strength goal dynamo Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
Penguins: Can we call Malkin an X-factor when he’s leading the playoffs in scoring? That’s kind of the point. If the Sens decide to deploy Erik Karlsson and Marc Methot against the Crosby line, will Cody Ceci and Dion Phaneuf survive out there against Malkin, Rust and Kessel? Gulp. That’s a major mismatch on paper and could decide the series.
While the series itself is likely a mismatch, a matchup between (arguably) the game’s best forward and defenseman should be a treat. During the regular season the two were very close in how much total value they provided to their team and were among the league leaders for GAR and Game Score. Erik Karlsson is the biggest reason Ottawa has made it this far and he’s a Conn Smythe front-runner at this point. For Ottawa to have a chance, he might have to be even better. In their past match-ups, Sidney Crosby has had the better of him scoring wise, though the possession match-up is much more even. Ottawa will need to close that gap and keep things 50/50 against Pittsburgh’s best. Crosby has been good in these playoffs, just not as good as his usual self. Luckily for Pittsburgh, they don’t need him to be his usual self because their team is loaded with forward depth who can help shoulder the load. That’s not the case for Karlsson who pretty much has to carry the team all by himself. He did it against Boston and New York, but this’ll be his toughest test yet: the defending Cup champs led by one of two players in the world who might be better than him. (Dom Luszczyszyn)
PENGUINS in six games.
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