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Why Phaneuf and Ceci are key to Senators succeeding against Penguins

Erik Karlsson has skated monster minutes against top competition all post-season, but it's how the Senators' defensive depth reacts to their toughest test yet that could determine the Eastern Conference champion.

As Ottawa heads into the Eastern Conference final against the Pittsburgh Penguins, it seems as though the Senators may have an Erik Karlsson problem. Strange to say, but it’s true.

To be clear, the issue isn't that Karlsson hasn’t been contributing. He clearly has, with two goals and 13 points in 12 games. And it’s not that he’s a defensive liability, as many of his detractors would try to suggest, because he isn’t. It also not that he’s afraid to put his body on the line to block a shot, or, conversely, all too willing to do so given he’s dealing with two fractures in his foot. Rather, the Senators’ problem as they prepare for their toughest playoff matchup yet is Karlsson’s ice time and the fact that it’s hard to see how coach Guy Boucher can possibly squeeze more out of the all-world rearguard.

Karlsson would take on more minutes, of course. He’s done about everything asked of him — and done it to near perfection — throughout the first two rounds. But having such a great influence against the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers meant that Karlsson was out on the ice roughly every second or third shift. That’s resulted in Karlsson almost literally skating a half hour per game, with an average ice time of 28:56 in these playoffs. In fact, against the Bruins, Karlsson legitimately averaged more than 30 minutes per game in the six-game series.

But no matter how Karlsson has played in the minutes he’s been given, the simple truth is it’s awfully hard to see where Boucher adds the extra ice time, especially when Karlsson is already reaching marathon-man totals. Only 19 defenseman in the post-lockout NHL have had an average ice time above 28 minutes across 12 playoff games and Karlsson sits behind only 10 rearguards on that list. More indicative of the territory Karlsson has entered into in today’s NHL, though, is that only two defensemen in the past five years — Zdeno Chara in 2012-13 and Duncan Keith in 2014-15 — have made it this deep into the post-season while taking on minutes of such mammoth proportions. And let’s not forget that Karlsson is also working with a bad wheel.

This is to say that the Senators’ Erik Karlsson problem is that even with how much he’s taken on in these playoffs, and even with his ability to excel across the monumental amount of minutes he’s seen, Karlsson is going to have to leave the ice eventually. And against the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, a team with enough offensive weapons that you nearly need your toes to count them, that means there are going to be times when one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin is going to be on the ice while Karlsson watches from the bench.

And it’s for that reason Dion Phaneuf and Cody Ceci could be the two players who stand to have the most impact on the Senators’ chances at advancing to the Stanley Cup final. 

While Phaneuf and Ceci may not be the Senators’ standouts throughout the post-season thus far, against Pittsburgh they’re going to be tasked with their most important matchup yet and could very well step into the spotlight. In the opening round, they were often up against the trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, with Ceci skating more than 60 minutes at 5-on-5 against the Bruins’ top line with Phaneuf not too far behind. In the second round, the Senators’ two secondary rearguards saw a whole lot of the Rangers’ Derek Stepan and Jimmy Vesey, with Ceci also getting his fill of Rick Nash while Phaneuf familiarized himself with Mats Zuccarello. But for as good as those seven forwards are, and there’s surely some top-flight scoring punch among them, no single opponent Phaneuf or Ceci have gone head-to-head with throughout this post-season has a star that shine’s bright as that of Crosby or Malkin.

That’s why the action between Phaneuf, Ceci and whoever they draw as a matchup, which seems most likely to be Malkin, can make all the difference. There doesn’t need to be much worry about with Karlsson and Marc Methot, a pairing that will likely draw duty against Crosby, because whatever the Penguins’ captain brings to the table is likely to be matched by the Senators’ captain, particularly when Karlsson is playing as well as he has been over the second half of the campaign. But Phaneuf and Ceci absolutely, positively have to find a way to shut down Malkin, who is leading the entire post-season with 18 points.

Finding a way to stifle Malkin will only be half the battle, however, because to focus only on No. 71 is to forget that he’s had Phil Kessel skating on his wing throughout the post-season, the same Kessel who has five goals and 13 points in 12 games. And it would also be to overlook the fact that Phaneuf and Ceci will also likely see a few other forwards a bit more frequently, such as, say, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bonino or Bryan Rust. All three have made their own offensive contributions in the post-season and shutting down an offense this deep means the reliance has to be the depth of the Senators’ defense to come through in a big way.

Phaneuf and Ceci won't be alone in that, to be sure. The onus will also be on whichever depth defenders step into the lineup, be it Chris Wideman, Ben Harpur, Fredrik Claesson or otherwise. There will also be a significant amount of pressure on goaltender Craig Anderson, who needs to find his game in a hurry after an ugly second round. The Senators’ netminder posted a .907 save percentage, allowing 19 goals against on 205 shots against the Rangers, in a series where he was incredibly out-duelled by his counterpart, Henrik Lundqvist, yet still came away victorious. For Anderson, that means playing more like he did against the Bruins — he posted a .921 SP and one shutout in six games — and putting together a much better performance at 5-on-5 than the .897 SP he turned in against New York. That was the worst 5-on-5 SP of any starting goaltender in the second round.

Being that shaky against the Penguins would almost certainly mean a playoff exit for the Senators. Marc-Andre Fleury has entered into the Conn Smythe Trophy conversation with his play this post-season and, even if he were to falter, Matt Murray is on his way back to good health. That means a flimsy Fleury performance would give way to a rested, if not exactly 100 percent, Murray, who is one season removed from leading Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup. The conference final is a must-win battle in goal for Anderson, if that wasn’t already clear.

But Ottawa’s biggest concern heading into this series has to be how the blueline reacts against the deepest attack they’ve faced when Karlsson isn’t on the ice. That’s the Senators’ Erik Karlsson problem. And as they hit the ice Saturday night, Ottawa will be hoping that Dion Phaneuf and Cody Ceci can provide a solution.

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