The Cinderella Senators have shocked the hockey world through the first two rounds of the post-season, but Ottawa’s playoff life is on the line Tuesday night in Canada’s capital. For the first time in the post-season, coach Guy Boucher’s squad is facing elimination, and coming on the heels of a blowout loss in Game 5, some might suggest that all is over in the Eastern Conference final but the crying.
However, as noted following the Penguins’ 7-0 blowout victory, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that a dominant win by Pittsburgh means Ottawa is dead in the water. Throughout this post-season, teams who have been blown out by four-or-more goals have had a tendency to come back and earn a win the next time out. Game 6 will be the Senators’ chance to continue that trend in what will be, for many on the roster, the most important game of their careers.
Downing a Pittsburgh squad that is coming off of a game in which the offense was red hot won’t be easy, though. No matter what recent playoff history has shown, these Penguins are as experienced an opponent as the Senators could be facing in the Eastern Conference final. And following a scare in the second round against the rival Washington Capitals, you can rest assured that the defending Stanley Cup champions are going to come out flying in hopes of avoiding Game 7 for a second-straight round in these playoffs.
Ottawa will be trying desperately to force that seventh and deciding game on Thursday night in Pittsburgh, though, and given that Boucher’s bunch has been able to slow down the Penguins and dominate the transition game at times throughout the series, there’s no reason the Senators’ slipper can’t still fit. Here’s how Ottawa keeps their unexpected Stanley Cup run alive and forces a Game 7:
A potentially career-defining performance from Erik Karlsson
Karlsson’s post-season has been bonkers for a few reasons, but one of the most shocking is that he’s logging an absurd 27:29 per game. His average ice time would be that much higher, too, if Boucher hadn’t pulled Karlsson from Game 4 against the New York Rangers and Game 5’s blowout loss to the Penguins. But pulling Karlsson from those games was a move made by Boucher to give his No. 1 defender some rest.
So, with that in mind, here’s the question you have to ask yourself, while taking into account that Karlsson was “rested” to end Game 6: if he has been playing that much in prior rounds that the Senators have won, how much ice time is he set to see as Ottawa faces elimination for the first time? It’d probably be safe to assume he’s going to see at least 28 minutes, but would anyone be shocked if he hovered close to or above the 30-minute mark?
Karlsson has had several standout games these playoffs, but if the Senators are going to stay alive and possibly win the Eastern Conference final, it could come down to Karlsson having the type of game that we look back on when his career comes to a close as arguably the greatest he ever played. He’s capable of that, too. Karlsson’s leading all defensemen in scoring with two goals and 15 points and has been on the ice for or factored into the scoring play on every single game-winning goal the Senators have scored in this post-season. If he can work his magic once more, Ottawa can force Game 7.
Mark Stone finally having his post-season breakout
Bobby Ryan, Mike Hoffman, Derick Brassard and Kyle Turris all have multiple points in this series. Heck, even Marc Methot has found the score sheet twice against the Penguins. But Stone has been conspicuously absent from the goal and assist columns throughout the series despite averaging the second-most ice time of any Senators forward. His only impact thus far has been a single secondary helper, which came on Ryan’s overtime winning goal in Game 1.
Stone’s offense has been an issue throughout the post-season, too. He was scoring at a .76 points per game clip in the regular season, and while others throughout the post-season have elevated their scoring, Stone has seen his fall off to .41 points per game. That’s a sizeable dip, and the Senators, who have been shutout twice in the series — once by Marc-Andre Fleury and once by Matt Murray — could really use a breakout from Stone.
He has the offensive punch to do so and he showed during the regular season that he’s more than capable of scoring against these Penguins. In two outings against Pittsburgh during the campaign, Stone put home two goals and four points. That’s the kind of performance the Senators need out of him right now. His defensive acumen and proclivity for stripping opponents of the puck is going to earn him serious ice time in Game 6, and Ottawa would surely benefit from Stone finally having a big playoff outing.
Second-pairing of Phaneuf and Ceci playing shut-down ‘D’
Ahead of the series, it was clear that the Senators’ second-pairing would be of utmost importance if Ottawa was going to slow up the Penguins because Pittsburgh’s depth of top-flight scorers is unlike that of almost any other club. The matchup between the Phaneuf-Ceci pairing and the Penguins’ second line, which includes Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, has been one to watch, too. There are no two Penguins that Phaneuf and Ceci have seen more ice time against, but the Senators’ defensive duo is losing the battle.
At 5-on-5, the possession battle has actually gone in favor of the Senators’ defensive unit, but in terms of goals for, Malkin and Kessel have the edge. That can’t be the case any more in this series. It’s hard enough for the Senators’ top pairing to find a way to shut down Sidney Crosby or Ottawa’s third pairing to go up against the considerable offensive depth Pittsburgh boasts. In Game 6, if Phaneuf and Ceci can shut down Phaneuf and Kessel, it’s up to Karlsson to beat Crosby in a one-on-one, star-versus-star battle. With the way Karlsson is playing, Ottawa will take their chances with that.
Use matchup game to exploit the Penguins’ banged-up defense
Home ice advantage in Game 6 gives the Senators more than a familiar setting — it offers Boucher the chance to have the last change. And given that the Penguins’ defense is once again going to be without Justin Schultz and Kris Letang, who has not and will not play all post-season, Boucher needs to ensure that he can have his top players take aim at and capitalize against the weakened Penguins blueline.
Just look at Pittsburgh’s defense. Their top rearguard this series has been Brian Dumoulin, who is averaging 22 minutes per game, a solid 1:30 increase from his regular season total. Next up is Olli Maatta, who is skating nearly four additional minutes per game, and 36-year-old Ron Hainsey, who has suddenly become a top-three guy in Pittsburgh. Trevor Daley rounds out the top four, but he’s only suited up in three games this round. Altogether, it’s hardly an all-world defense corps and that’s something Ottawa needs to find a way to break down. If Boucher can get his top guys out against the bottom two pairings, the Senators should have a good chance to do so.
It’s important to start finding some cracks in the defense, too, because Matt Murray has been all too comfortable the past two games. He hasn’t faced more than 26 shots in either of his two starts. Really peppering Murray is the only way to consistently beat him. He’s not all that prone to rough nights.
Another special post-season performance from Craig Anderson
Anderson’s third post-season game of his career was one of the most memorable playoff games in recent history. In the 2010 playoffs, with the Colorado Avalanche up against the San Jose Sharks, Anderson was absolutely bombarded with shots. The Sharks put 51 pucks on Anderson, but he wouldn’t crack. And after shutting out San Jose through 60 minutes, the Avalanche proceeded to win the outing 51 seconds into overtime.
That’s a near-impossible performance to repeat, but similar outings haven’t been all that uncommon in Anderson’s playoff career. In Anderson’s second trip to the playoffs in 2012, his first with Ottawa, he pitched a 41-save shutout against the New York Rangers in the opening round. The next season, he had a 48-save, two-goal against victory over the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, followed by a 49-save, one-goal against win over who else but the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. Most recently, he stopped 138 of the 142 Canadiens’ shots he faced in the first round of the 2015 playoffs.
Anderson hasn’t had that one awe-inspiring game this playoffs, though. He’s had some good nights, to be sure — a shutout against the Boston Bruins in the first round and 37 saves to eliminate the New York Rangers in Round Two — but not yet has he had that one game where it looks like the only thing that could beat him is a literal cannon blast. There would be no time more perfect for Anderson to have that outing than in Game 6.
There’s no guarantee he’ll pull off more post-season magic, but Anderson has proven repeatedly that he has the ability to steal games in the playoffs. If he does it again Tuesday night, the Senators will have a shot at Game 7.
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