PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – The Pittsburgh Penguins have advanced to the Eastern Conference Final for the second straight year.
To date, the Penguins have dispatched the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals – two of the top four teams in the league this season.
How they accomplished such a feat considering the overwhelming amount of injuries the team has sustained from October until now is staggering.
Most teams would have crumbled and folded and used the injuries as an excuse. Not this team, not these Penguins.
Let it sink in for a moment. Just take a moment to appreciate what this team is accomplishing right now.
In the face of adversity, this team has simply responded. They just play. They just find ways to win.
Now, they are halfway to doing something no team has done in nearly 20 years – repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
The next step on the road to glory runs through Ottawa. So, how can the Pens beat this upstart Senators team?
Here are five keys:
Erik Karlsson Factor
It was Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin in the last round. It could have been Kris Letang vs. Erik Karlsson in this one.
How much fun would it have been to see two of the league’s top defensemen go at it?
Anyway, we all know Letang is sadly out for the year. However, Karlsson isn’t playing at 100 percent as he deals with a foot injury, which makes what he’s doing on the ice even more impressive.
Entering this series, he is averaging 28:56 of ice time a night. In addition to the hard minutes, he’s already racked up 13 points (2 goals, 11 assists) in 12 games.
The Senators’ captain has carried this team through the first two rounds. They go as he goes. He’s a phenomenal talent and a lot of fun to watch.
That said, the Penguins can help themselves out by finishing every check on Karlsson. I’m not saying the Penguins should go all Tom Wilson and go headhunting out there.
All I’m suggesting is that they get in on the forecheck and finish their hits. Make him look over his shoulder to see which black and gold jersey is coming to punish him for touching the puck.
Help Out Fleury
Let’s settle something immediately. It’s great to see Matt Murray was available as the backup goaltender in Game 7 against Washington.
However, this is Marc-Andre Fleury’s net until he proves otherwise. Much like last year, the Penguins are going to ride the hot goalie as long as they can. Fleury is showing no signs of stopping. He’s locked in and is quite frankly the biggest reason the Penguins find themselves in this position.
That said, his teammates can help him out a bit in this series by finally controlling play in the offensive zone.
Far too often against Columbus and Washington, the Penguins found themselves penned in their own defensive zone. That has led to the Penguins blocking a whopping 250 shots (20.8 per game) through two rounds.
Far too often, Fleury was subjected to a shooting gallery.
How many games has Fleury flat out stolen in these playoffs? Five? Six? All eight wins?
He’s the undisputed MVP of this team and a clear favorite for the Conn Smythe, should the Penguins get that far.
While he pitched a shutout in Game 7, the team around him finally played like the team that won a Cup a year ago. Fleury was big when needed in Game 7, but if the team can continue to play like they did in Game 7, this series could certainly go their way.
Shots blocked by the Penguins in 12 games during the playoffs, the most in the NHL. The Senators, who have talked about how important blocks are to their game plan, have blocked 195 in 12 games.
Flightless Birds Need To Take Flight
The Ottawa Senators will no doubt continue their 1-3-1 tactic to try and slow down the Penguins.
Washington did a good job of keeping the Penguins’ speed in check for most of the series and it will be something the Senators will try to do as well.
In the last round, the Rangers were able to exploit the Senators at times and had a fair number of breakaway and odd-man rushes. The Penguins are faster and more skilled than New York and if they can rule the neutral zone, it could be a long series for Ottawa.
That said, an emphasis will be placed on scoring the first goal in this series. If the Penguins get on the board first, eventually Ottawa will need to break formation to take some chances.
If Ottawa scores first, get ready to watch them try and lock it down and capitalize on mistakes.
Getting off to a quick start has been problematic for the Penguins in these playoffs. It will be imperative to rectify that problem starting in Game 1.
I know I’ve used this as a key for the previous two series, but it’s going to be a factor once again.
Through 12 playoff games, the Senators have been penalized 40 times. To their credit, they have only allowed five power play goals (87.5 percent kill rate).
But, Ottawa hasn’t seen a power play with the firepower the Penguins possess. So far, the Penguins are clicking at a 21.6 percent rate with the man-advantage (8 for 37).
As for the Senators, they enter the series with the 13th ranked power play in the playoffs at 14.6 percent (6 for 41). But, the numbers spike on the road.
The Sens are converting at a 21.1 percent rate (4 for 19) on the road. If you were wondering, the math at home is a mere 9.1 percent success rate (2 for 22).
Overall, the Senators have also allowed three shorthanded goals.
As for Pittsburgh, they enter the series with the 10th ranked penalty kill in the playoffs at 80 percent. They have been shorthanded 35 times and allowed seven goals.
Granted, all these numbers could be slightly misleading due to the quality of the opposition. Again, the Pens have been up against the best the Eastern Conference has to offer, while the Senators simply have not.
The Penguins have a clear edge in top-end talent in this series. The Senators can’t match Sidney Crosby, Evegni Malkin, Phil Kessel, etc. up front. As for the defense, we’ve already covered the Karlsson factor.
But, where the Penguins have been able to assert dominance over the past two playoff runs is their depth. Look at Game 7 against Washington as the prime example.
Head coach Mike Sullivan knew he needed to shake up some things, including personnel. As a result, he scratched Carl Hagelin and Tom Kuhnhackl and inserted Scott Wilson and Carter Rowney.
Wilson and Rowney were some of the most visible Penguins on the ice that night. This wasn’t a switch for the sake of making a switch. Those two performed well in the Columbus series, which likely gave Sullivan full confidence to turn to them in such a big moment.
That confidence has been earned all season. The Penguins’ injury situation this year has bordered on comical. The fact they finished with the second-best record in the league and are in the Conference Final speaks volumes about the depth of the franchise.
To that end, I don’t think we’ve seen the best Nick Bonino and Conor Sheary can bring to this point in the playoffs. I think this could be a series where these two guys absolutely shine.
Heading into Game 7 against Washington, I will admit that I was not sure that the Penguins had enough left in the tank. They looked gassed and completely out of sorts. It felt like even if they squeaked out a win, the Senators would be able to take advantage of a team that had been put through the ringer.
But, the Penguins made a statement in Game 7. They showed why they are the defending champs.
They looked like a whole new team, one with a renewed sense of urgency. The stars came to play, the depth guys stepped up and Fleury continued to shine.
It’s that complete performance and will to win, which has made me completely change my mind about this series.
With home-ice advantage and the team seemingly having woken up, I can’t see the Penguins losing this series.
The top-end talent gap will be enough to propel the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year.
Pens in 5.