The Ottawa Senators came through on Tuesday night, holding on for a 2–1 win to stave off elimination and send the Eastern Conference Final back to Pittsburgh. And so, for the third time in this year’s playoffs, fans will be treated to a winner-take-all seventh game.
Who’ll win? We have no idea. In today’s parity-stricken NHL, anyone who tells you that they know who’ll come out on top in a single game is full of it. We’re pretty close to coin-flip territory here, and anything could happen tonight.
But of course, that doesn’t really cut it when it comes to analysis. The rules of sports writing say we’re supposed to dress it all up in absolutes. So let’s break out a gimmick that worked well for last round’s Pittsburgh/Washington showdown, and come up with five reasons why the Penguins are definitely going to win this thing. And then, five more for the Senators.
One way or another, we’re guaranteed to be right. And also wrong. But we’ll ignore that last part, and take our victories where we can find them. A win is a win, after all, as one of these teams will be reminded tonight.
The Penguins will win because: They’ve been here before
The Penguins most recent Game 7 win came two weeks ago. That was when they went into Washington, shrugged off two straight losses, and drove a stake through the heart of the Capitals franchise. They also beat the Lighting last year in this exact situation: Game 7 on home ice in the Conference Final. And some of these players were around in 2009, when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in a seventh-game classic with the Red Wings.
By comparison, the Senators most recent Game 7 win came… never. They’ve literally never had one in the history of the franchise. That seems like it should be impossible given how often Ottawa has been in the playoffs over the years, but here we are. And some of those losses have come in truly heart-breaking fashion.
Granted, most of that is ancient history for today’s Senators roster; their last Game 7 came back in 2012. But the point remains: The Penguins roster is packed with guys who’ve been here before and know what it takes to win a do-or-die game. Most of the Senators have never played in a Game 7 at all, and a few of the ones who have won’t want to remember how it turned out.
If you believe that big-game experience matters, this one is as easy a call as they come.
The Senators will win because: They’re just about the perfect Game 7 road team
We always hear teams talk about how you play all season long to earn home ice in a Game 7. And sure, home teams have historically had an edge in a seventh-game situation. That’s good news for the Penguins.
But not all road teams are created equal, and the Senators are just about the ideal team to go into an opponent’s building and shut down the party. Much has been made about whether Guy Boucher’s squad is boring, but that misses the point. In today’s NHL, boring wins. And it’s just about the perfect style for a big road game.
Maybe the Penguins come out flying and put this one away early. But it’s not hard to picture a game where goals are tough to come by, and we’re drifting into the second period or beyond still sitting at 0–0 while the crowd gets quiet and everyone starts muttering about how it feels like we’re already in overtime. The Senators would be perfectly happy to play that sort of game. It’s become Boucher’s specialty.
For what it’s worth, the Senators haven’t won a playoff series on home ice since the opening round in 2007. In the decade since, all five of their series wins have come on the road, including both of this year’s. They’ve been here before. They know what it takes to close out a team in their opponent’s building. And if they need to, they’re perfectly willing to be boring to do it.
The Penguins will win because: They’ve been the better team
It’s the playoffs, so you could argue that wins are all that matter and by that measure these two teams have been equal.
But it’s 2017, and we’re smarter than that. We know that the scoreboard doesn’t tell us everything, and by just about every other metric, the Penguins have been the best team in this series. They’re outshooting the Senators by over five shots a game. They’re dominating possession. Their special teams have been far better. And even if you want to be old-school and only point at the scoreboard, they’re winning there, too, outscoring the Senators by a half-goal a game over the course of the series.
With the exception of the first period of Game 3, which featured several fluky goals, it’s hard to point to any sustained stretch in this series in which the Senators have clearly been better. Meanwhile, in the last two games, Pittsburgh won a 7–0 blowout and followed that up with a dominant 46-shot performance on Tuesday.
Being the better team doesn’t guarantee anything in today’s NHL. But the Penguins are playing well enough to win, and they know it.
The Senators will win because: They have the best player
This sounds crazy. The Penguins have Sidney Crosby, the consensus top player in the world. They have the best player in every series they play, and will right up until they face Connor McDavid and the Oilers in the Stanley Cup final a few years down the road.
But this isn’t about the best player in the big picture. It’s about right now. And in the 2017 playoffs, Erik Karlsson has been better than Crosby and everyone else. If he can be that player tonight, the Penguins aren’t likely to have an answer for him.
If anything, you could argue that Crosby hasn’t even been the best forward in the series; Evgeni Malkin has looked far scarier at several points, especially over the last few games. If you’re a Penguins fan, you can twist that around: We haven’t seen Crosby’s best game yet, so maybe he’s due tonight. Maybe Malkin finds another level. Maybe both Crosby and Malkin do, and Phil Kessel joins in, too, and the Penguins blow the doors off the Senators.
But that’s a lot of maybes. Karlsson hasn’t been a maybe. He’s been the one sure thing in these playoffs.
The Penguins will win because: Karlsson seems like he’s hurt
Sure, Karlsson’s been fantastic over the course of the post-season. But he’s looked almost human for at least some of the conference final, recording just three assists and coming out on the wrong end of the possession battle a few times.
And it’s not hard to guess why: He’s clearly hurt. He’s been battling through some sort of lower-body problem, presumably the hairline fractures in his heel that he revealed last month. We were assured those had fully healed, but either that wasn’t true, or something else is bothering him. He’s left the bench and gone back to the room several times during the series, and he missed the third period of Sunday’s loss as a precaution.
Granted, Karlsson at 80 per cent is still better than just about any defenceman in the league. But in what looms as one of the biggest games in the history of the franchise, the Senators will need everyone to be at their best. Karlsson doesn’t seem to be, and that could be enough to sway the series.
The Senators will win because: The Penguins are tired and broken
Karlsson isn’t the only injured Senator, and at this time of year, just about everyone is dealing with some sort of injury. But the Penguins are in especially bad shape, missing half their blue line at various points in the series. And that’s not even counting Kris Letang, who’s out for the entire post-season. They’ve also been without Patric Hornqvist, and Bryan Rust missed two games.
And then there’s Crosby, who still doesn’t look quite right after suffering a concussion against Washington. He’s had his moments during the series, with goals in three straight games before being held off the scoreboard on Tuesday. But he hasn’t had one of those games where he takes over, and it’s fair to wonder if he’s healthy enough to do it.
The Penguins could be getting some help tonight; it’s sounding like there’s a good chance that Hornqvist and Justin Schultz will return, which would be a big boost. But this is a team that’s now played 206 regular-season and playoff games in the last two years — on top of the World Cup duty that guys like Crosby and Malkin pulled.
For once, the league gave us a playoff round without any gaps or extra days off. That was good for hockey fans, but a disaster for a bruised-and-battered Pittsburgh squad. You often hear the playoffs described as a war of attrition, and right now that’s a war the Penguins are losing.
The Penguins will win because: Matt Murray has looked sharp
If we’re going to point out how tired most of the Penguins must be, we should also mention that Murray is just about as fresh as a goalie can be at this point in the playoffs. Thanks to an early injury and Marc-Andre Fleury’s unexpectedly solid run as playoff starter, Murray will be starting just his fourth game of the postseason. Including the portion of game three that he saw, Murray’s given up just five goals on 101 shots. On Tuesday, the Senators beat him twice, but it took two absolutely perfect shots to do it. He’s on top of his game.
Craig Anderson is coming off an even better Game 6. But he’s been up and down in the playoffs, including a terrible first period in Sunday’s 7–0 wipeout. He’s more than capable of stealing this one all by himself, but you’d have to figure the Penguins have a slight edge in goal heading into Game 7.
The Senators will win because: They won’t quit
Let’s face it: The Penguins went into Washington and won that Game 7 by breaking the Capitals’ spirit. Once Pittsburgh went up 1-0, you could feel the energy come out of the game. When it was 2-0, even with 15 minutes left in regulation, it was over. With their season (and maybe far more) on the line, the Caps could barely muster any kind of pushback. They were done.
This might be damning with faint praise, but when it comes to pushing back, this year’s Senators aren’t the Capitals. They’ve made a habit of dramatic comebacks in this year’s playoffs. They did it in Game 6. They very nearly pulled it off in Game 4 after falling behind 3–0. They did it to the Bruins and (especially) the Rangers.
And if they need to, they can do it to the Penguins tonight. Every team heads into a Game 7 wanting to get a good start, and that’s especially true on the road. But let’s say it doesn’t happen. Let’s say the Penguins come out flying and get an early goal, maybe even two. The way things have gone this year, the Senators will probably feel like they have them right where they want them.
Sometimes, just believing you can claw back is half the battle. The Capitals clearly didn’t believe. The Senators do.
The Penguins will win because: They’re the champs
As a wise man once said: To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. The Penguins are the defending champions for a reason, and it’s not because they fold when the games matter most.
Sure, they’re tired. Sure, they’re hurt. Sure, they haven’t looked their best for much of the series. But they’re still standing. And until someone else can beat them four times, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.
The Senators will win because: This is destiny
Sens fans have spent the last few weeks hearing all about how ridiculously lucky their team has been to even get this far. They weren’t very good during the season’s first half, and ended up banking more points than they probably deserved. They were the only playoff team with a negative goal differential. The weird playoff format served up two relatively easy matchups while superior teams had to face each other in the Metro. They had home ice against a team with a better record. Their opponents keep running into injury problems. Their overtime record is unsustainable. They’re getting all the bounces.
You can call all of that luck if you want. Here’s another word for it: Destiny.
Roll your eyes if you must; lots of fans will be right there with you. But this is the playoffs, and you’re allowed to have a little fun with the narrative. There’s something to be said for embracing a Cinderella story, and no true underdog has ever made it very far without getting some breaks along the way. The line between “team of destiny” and “lucky fluke” is a lot thinner than we’d like to admit.
The cynical side says that what Ottawa is doing is all one big cosmic accident, and that the odds have to even out sooner or later. Maybe that’s true. But there’s something to be said for allowing yourself to believe in a little bit of playoff magic, even if your rational brain knows that’s not how it works.
Ottawa fans are already there. The players sure seem to be, too. You’ve got a few more hours to jump on board. Because the Ottawa Senators are knocking off the defending champs tonight and then they’re going to head home to host the Stanley Cup final, whether it makes one bit of sense or not.