After disposing of the Washington Capitals in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in seven games, the Pittsburgh Penguins will finally get a break from having to defeat two of the Eastern Conference’s best teams in the regular season (that will never get old) and now will face a team in the Ottawa Senators that didn’t clinch a playoff berth until the third-to-last game of the regular season. Those of you who were drawing parallels between last year’s playoffs and this year’s playoffs prior to Game 6 against Washington…I wish you good luck finding those parallels again here.
This season the Penguins won only one of the three meetings with the Senators, an 8-5 scorefest wherein Bryan Rust scored a hat trick and added an assist in just 12:38, Matt Murray subbed in (and won) in place of Marc-Andre Fleury after Fleury allowed four goals, and Craig Anderson was on the hook for seven of Pittsburgh’s eight goals. Anderson’s backup, Mike Condon, was the winning goalie of record in both of the Senators’ wins at home, allowing just two goals total in January’s 4-1 win and March’s 2-1 win, the latter of which contains the latest chapter of Ottawa’s disdain of the Penguins. Sidney Crosby caught Marc Methot in the hand with a “routine” slash and Methot’s finger
exploded into a million pieces was left kinda bloody; Methot left the game and Crosby was unpenalized, but Senators GM Eugene Melnyk got super butt-hurt about it. (Methot left the game and wouldn’t return until the Senators’ first playoff game. He’s fine.)
Towards the end of the regular season, the Atlantic Division and second Wild Card races were a logjam, with Ottawa, Boston, Toronto, Tampa Bay and the Islanders jockeying for three playoff seeds. Looking at their schedule and results on hockey-reference.com, it’s difficult to understand how the Senators managed to get into second place in the Atlantic Division; they lost ten of their last fifteen games! Compare that to the team they beat in the first round of the playoffs, the Bruins, who won ten of their last sixteen, and the Senators really defied the odds in even making the playoffs, let alone being successful. They defied the odds yet again in beating the Metropolitan Division’s fourth-best team, the New York Rangers, with three one-goal wins (four if you ignore the empty-netter in the series-clinching Game 6). The home team won each game in that series, except Game 6.
The Senators and Penguins have plenty of history. The Senators’ last trip to the Eastern Conference Finals was in 2007, and the first stepping stone in their way was a Penguins team that was two years away from its third Stanley Cup; it was not a pretty series and Ottawa advanced 4-1 en route to a Stanley Cup Finals loss against the Anaheim Ducks (hmmm). Since then, the Senators have made the playoffs six times and the Penguins have eliminated them three times: 2008, 2010, and 2013. That 2013 year was perhaps the most frustrating for the Senators: fresh off his first Norris trophy, Erik Karlsson was injured in just his 14th game of a lockout-shortened season when Matt Cooke (of course) tangled up with him along the boards and ended up lacerating Karlsson’s Achilles’ tendon. Karlsson would end up returning in time for the playoffs, but the Senators bowed out to the Penguins in five games.
Watching Karlsson play against the Penguins will likely evoke some bittersweet thoughts of Kris Letang. Letang, still out of the lineup as he recovers from neck surgery, is one of the closest comparables to Karlsson in the League right now. Karlsson is calm, smooth skating, offensively and defensively sound, and he is a fabulous teammate. When he’s on the ice, he can do just about anything he needs to in order to make his team better. Like Letang, the Senators will rely on Karlsson to win puck battles and successfully exit the defensive zone, help drive the offense through the neutral zone on transition, and move the puck with pace and accuracy. He will do that for 27+ minutes a game and with great consistency. He’s the kind of player the Penguins are missing from their defense; a presence who affects the flow of the game and the players around him regularly, and brings killer hair for the ladies.
The matchup to watch in this series will be the Penguins’ offense versus the “Kanata Wall.” The Senators use either a 1-3-1 or 1-1-3 neutral zone scheme to either pinch off and kill transitioning offenses at the red line or stop them dead at the blue line. The Penguins had a few problems with their transition game against Washington but were able to get pucks deep in Game 7 by dummying two forwards on the walls and giving one the space through the middle. Could they have been practicing for the Senators? In any event, the Senators are facing a Penguins team that has the depth, the skill, and the speed to challenge their defensemen. They also rely on four main defenders: Karlsson, Cody Ceci, Dion Phaneuf, and Methot; they will be challenged by the Penguins’ three-plus lines and will hope to not be burned out by the end of the series.
After being outshot for two rounds, the Penguins may have a chance to get their own offense rolling against the Senators, and that could be problematic for Ottawa and their veteran goaltender, Craig Anderson. Anderson’s base stats look alright – he’s faced 53 fewer shots than Marc-Andre Fleury and allowed just one fewer goal, his save% is just .007 away from Fleury’s, and his GAA is just .06 away from Fleury’s – but his GSAA (goals saved above average) is 5.23 away from Fleury and -2.43 below average. Whereas it was a good thing for Anderson’s regular season numbers to be in the ballpark of Anaheim’s John Gibson, it isn’t so great in the playoffs (only Gibson has a worse GSAA than Anderson among the remaining goaltenders). If Pittsburgh can get their offense going against Ottawa, it will be on Anderson to shut the door in ways he hasn’t been great at in these playoffs.
As for the Penguins’ goaltending situation: after Fleury’s great performance in Game 7 against Washington (and really the entire series), there’s not much chance that Matt Murray will be taking over for the Flower. After all, Fleury has gotten them this far despite facing the second-most shots of anyone in these playoffs; indeed, besides Pekka Rinne (who has been helped out by a great defense, finally), Fleury is arguably the best goalie left in these playoffs. He has been buried in shots but he’s kept the Penguins afloat, and the Penguins have helped him out by scoring the most goals in the playoffs. Rest assured, Murray will be there to bail Fleury out if he goes south, but it is possibly Fleury’s last ride with the Penguins and he looks to be going out with a bang.
What will it take to get rid of these Penguins? The Columbus Blue Jackets tried hitting the crap out of them and failed miserably. The Washington Capitals tried outshooting them and couldn’t stop them from scoring. In both cases, neither opponent expected Fleury to be the one to stop them cold. Fleury is arguably the Penguins’ best Conn Smythe nominee; he has been their most valuable player, particularly since his backup for most of these playoffs had just one NHL game under his belt. Fleury has needed to be the Penguins’ best player, and he’s been everything they’ve needed him to be.
Mike Sullivan announced yesterday that Trevor Daley is out with a lower-body injury which from my medical background I can assume it’s a condition known as 33 year-old legs playing 200 games of hockey in 2 years with a broken ankle in between. Carl Hagelin was held out of game 7 because of a nagging injury, perhaps he wasn’t 100% when he returned, he didn’t look to have his usually blazing speed. Tom Kuhnhackl was a coaches decision in game 7 and is healthy, so what matchups will Sullivan be looking for, and what should they watch out for?
The Senators top line is an interesting one, as they have combined for 4 goals and 8 assists total in the playoffs, with Kyle Turris counting for 3 of the goals and 3 of the assists. If this line was drawing the best defensive pairing from Boston and New York that makes sense in a way. This line looks like a decoy on paper, it performs like a decoy on stats sheets, I imagine Sullivan will trust the likes of Cole-Ruhwedel to handle this line. It also wouldn’t surprise me to see Sullivan put the first line up against these guys, as the speed of Guentzel-Crosby-Rust will negate the majority of what this line can do.
The Sens second line has been their most potent with Ryan’s 9 points (4 g, 5 a) putting him second only to Karlsson’s 14 points. Brassard has chipped in with 3 goals and 6 assists to place 4rd on the team in points, and then there is Stalberg with 2 assists. So far the top two lines for the Senators have 11 goals in 12 games played. Since I am using the Penguins top defenders below my prediction is Schultz-Maatta to get the call here, which is a good matchup for the Pens if Maatta continues his strong play. Offensively we have the 2nd line (Kunitz-Malkin-Kessel) and the 3rd line (Hagelin/Wilson-Bonino-Hornqvist) left. Whichever one plays here the other goes up against the Senators 4th line.
This is the line that constantly gets the best of the Penguins, and judging by the stats they have been overlooked by Boston and NYR as well: Hoffman (4g, 3a), Stone (4g, 2a), Smith (0g, 5a). The third line has 8 goals and 10 assists compared to the first two lines total of 11 goals and 21 assists. This is the matchup Guy Boucher tries to put up against a teams weakest pairing. It would not surprise me to see Sullivan attempt to matchup the Cullen line against this one, much like he trusted that line to Washington’s top line. Defensively Sullivan may opt for his shut-down pairing of Dumoulin and Hainsey. I know it is the third line but the stats don’t lie, and like I said this line has had success against the Pens.
And here we have the team leader in playoff goals, Jean-Gabriel Pageau with his 7 goals and 0 assists centering Pyatt (1g 0a in 7 games) and MacArthur (2 g, 4a). Depending on the forwards used to match with the 2nd line the Pens should be left with either Malkins line (hello mismatch) or Bonino’s line. If Sullivan tries the Bonino line against the Sens 2nd and is able to consistently get Malkin and Kessel out against this line (ideal situation) then look for the league leader to have 30 points by the end of this series.
Defensively the Senators will put Karlsson and 9 of Methot’s fingers out against the Crosby line and potentially try to use Phaneuf to beat down Malkin.
Either way if Sullivan plays his cards right there is a mismatch in the pairings without him even trying. Unless the Penguins defense/goalies collapse or the offense decides to fizzle out Ottawa is going to need their goaltenders to steal them this series, that is what it comes down to. In the regular season you don’t scout a team enough to adjust to 1-3-1 traps or a talented 3rd line that mismatches with your third pairing. In the playoffs, Sullivan doesn’t miss the details. That’s why we are still blogging in the middle of May.
LET’S GO PENS