Stanley Cup Playoffs Conference Final Preview: Senators vs. Penguins

Guy Boucher talked about Erik Karlsson being a game-breaker in the mould of Wayne Gretzky and the Senators being able to enjoy a series victory over the Rangers.

The Pittsburgh Penguins meet the Ottawa Senators in the 2017 Eastern Conference Final, a 111-point team defending its title against a 98-point team that has shocked most by getting this far.

This will be the fifth series between these two teams, with the Penguins winning the past four. Their last series came in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, which the Pens won 4-1 before getting knocked out in the conference final.

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NHL Playoffs Round 3 Preview
May 11 2017

On display will be two of the sport’s best talents. Erik Karlsson has seemingly forced himself into the “best player in the world” debate from the last portion of the regular season through his incredible playoff run so far. And we all know about Sidney Crosby and his reputation for shining in the big moment. Beyond those two, the Penguins have an unusual depth of superstar talent capable of decisively swinging a series, while the Sens have got here with a lot of help from some unlikely places.

Here is how the Sens and Pens stack up.

BROADCAST SCHEDULE
Game 1, Saturday, May 13: Ottawa at Pittsburgh, 7:00pm on Sportsnet & CBC
Game 2, Monday, May 15: Ottawa at Pittsburgh, 8:00pm on CBC
Game 3, Wednesday, May 17: Pittsburgh at Ottawa, 8:00pm on CBC
Game 4, Friday, May 19: Pittsburgh at Ottawa, 8:00pm on CBC
Game 5, Sunday, May 21:* Ottawa at Pittsburgh, 3:00pm on CBC
Game 6, Tuesday, May 23:* Pittsburgh at Ottawa, 8:00pm on CBC
Game 7, Thursday, May 25:* Ottawa at Pittsburgh, 8:00pm on CBC

ADVANCED STATS (playoffs)
Ottawa: 51.77 5on5 CF% (6th), .917 5on5 Sv% (13th), 7.84 5on5 Sh% (5th)
Pittsburgh: 41.99 5on5 CF% (16th), .923 5on5 Sv% (11th), 9.87 5on5 Sh% (1st)

TEAM STATS (playoffs)
Ottawa: 14.6 PP% (13th), 87.5 PK% (7th), 2.83 GF/G (4th), 2.75 GA (9th)
Pittsburgh: 21.6 PP% (5th), 80.0 PK% (10th), 3.42 GF/G (1st), 2.58 GA (8th)

HEAD-TO-HEAD RECORD
Ottawa: 2-1-0
Pittsburgh: 1-1-1

Round 1&2 Strengths for Ottawa: The Senators are a surprise to be here, especially with Karlsson playing through injury. But a strength for them so far has been the play and production of some off-the-radar players. Bobby Ryan has come back from a miserable 25-point season and is second on the team with nine points in 12 playoff games, including two game-winners. Jean-Gabriel Pageau has seven points, all of which are goals, and four of which came in Game 2 against the Rangers. The team’s shorthanded unit has also been on point, killing 87.5 per cent of its situations.

Round 1&2 Strengths for Pittsburgh: As expected, Pittsburgh’s star power has the team in position to defend its Stanley Cup championship. Evgeni Malkin (18), Crosby (13) and Phil Kessel (13) are team leaders in points. Not to be outdone, Marc-Andre Fleury is excelling in what could possibly be his last run with the Penguins. Fleury has faced 394 shots, the third-most of all goalies to this point, with a .921 save percentage. A flip from what happened last season, Fleury has been a hero for the Pens since Matt Murray went down to injury, but Murray is an option again, returning to the bench as a backup in Game 7 against Washington.

Round 1&2 Weaknesses for Ottawa: As good as the penalty-killers have been the Senators still need to be a more disciplined team. They have been shorthanded 40 times in 12 playoff games, which is the second-highest rate of the teams left. In the regular season, Ottawa was 22nd in PK%, and will face their stiffest opponent on offence yet in Round 3.

Round 1&2 Weaknesses for Pittsburgh: Without Kris Letang, the Penguins blue line takes a huge hit and they had to go without Trevor Daley at the end of the Caps series as well. The Pens have allowed an average of 35.3 shots against per game in the post-season, the most of any playoff team. They generate enough offence to keep themselves in it, but there’s no doubt defence is a weakness that a fast, gifted team could exploit.

Senators X-Factor: There’s no question the X-Factor, life blood, soul (whatever you want to call it) of this team is Karlsson, who is showing everyone why he should be in the conversation when discussing who the best player on the planet is. Karlsson, who revealed after Round 1 that he’d been playing with two hairline fractures in his foot, has nonetheless willed the Senators here with 13 points in 12 games. It’s incredible to watch him singlehandedly transition the Sens from defence to offence. He is averaging 28:56 of ice time, which is nearly half a game per night. The NHL is not comparable to the NBA in that usually one star outside of the crease doesn’t pull his team through the playoffs. But without Karlsson, the Senators are not here.

Penguins X-Factor: Crosby sustained another concussion against Washington and had to miss Game 4 of that series. There was another questionable incident involving contact to Crosby’s head in Game 6 that didn’t lead to his removal from the game, but there is concern for his health nonetheless. If Crosby goes down, Malkin tends to step up, but with the blue line hurting, Pittsburgh can’t afford any long-term injuries to its most effective players. Crosby lifts players like Jake Guentzel to new levels and will be in contention for his second consecutive Conn Smythe if the Pens get back to the final.

PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS (G-A-PTS)
Ottawa: Erik Karlsson (2-11-13), Bobby Ryan (4-5-9), Derick Brassard (3-6-9), Jean-Gabriel Pageau (7-0-7), Mike Hoffman (4-3-7).
Pittsburgh: Evgeni Malkin (5-13-18), Sidney Crosby (4-10-14), Jake Guentzel (9-5-14), Phil Kessel (5-8-13), Justin Schultz (2-6-8).

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