The Penguins have done it again.
For the second time in as many years, the flightless birds return to the Eastern Conference Finals after taking down the Washington Capitals in a roller coaster seven game series. This time, they’ll be facing the Ottawa Senators.
The early consensus has many experts predicting the Penguins winning this series pretty easily but such may not be the case.
Previewing The Penguins (50-21-11, 111 PTS)
The Penguins have had a very interesting ride through the playoffs as they have faced two of the NHL’s top four teams in the regular season (Columbus and Washington).
The Penguins were beaten up in both series’ undoubtedly. The Blue Jackets and Capitals alike are physical teams that countered the Penguins’ speed with physicality. The Penguins faced adversity in both series but more so against Washington. They conquered both tests and are going to be facing an Ottawa Senators team that seems to be holding on for dear life.
The Penguins have a healthy Sidney Crosby right now after the brutal hit from Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen and are watching as Marc-Andre Fleury is playing the best hockey of his career.
Crosby has been fortunate enough to find some chemistry with Jake Guentzel. Conor Sheary, Crosby’s former linemate, has struggled in these playoffs and has seen his time taken by the likes of Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust. In game seven, Rust scored to further enhance his legacy as a clutch goal scorer in elimination games.
Something to keep an eye on could be the fact that Mike Sullivan benched Carl Hagelin, one of last season’s playoff heroes, in favor of Scott Wilson in game seven. Tom Kuhnhackl was scratched in favor of Carter Rowney. Both Wilson and Rowney played exceptional games in the series finale.
The Penguins defense was very stingy in the final game after being the suspect reason the Penguins could’ve potentially lost the series.
They gave up way too many quality opportunities and had turnover after turnover in both of the previous two series.
The pairing that stood out the most in a bad way to me is the Brian Dumoulin-Ron Hainsey pairing. Both were abysmally bad throughout and played their best game in the clincher. Hainsey made a crucial turnover in game six that shifted the momentum into the Capitals favor for good. The Penguins will need exceeded production from Justin Schultz as well as Trevor Daley, assuming he returns, with Kris Letang sidelined for the season. Many including myself thought the Penguins would be screwed without Letang and the defense has played like they are lost. One man is keeping them afloat.
As previously mentioned, Pittsburgh’s goaltender is playing some of the best hockey he has ever played in his career.
Fleury owns a .927 save percentage and a 2.55 goals against average. He outplayed the likely Vezina Trophy winner (Sergei Bobrovsky) and last year’s Vezina Trophy winner (Braden Holtby) on his way to carrying the Penguins in what appears to be his final season donning a Penguins uniform.
Previewing The Senators (44-28-10, 98 PTS)
Some consider the Senators road to this Eastern Conference Finals one that they shouldn’t have gotten through. It took six games against the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers to meet Pittsburgh in the third round.
The Senators are a team flying high with some momentum gained from their two series victories but they may be running into a wall that can’t be moved.
Looking at the Senators roster, they don’t have many quality names but the do have one of the world’s best defensemen currently in Erik Karlsson.
Karlsson has labored through the playoffs on a broken foot. He has persevered knowing he’s a huge reason for Ottawa’s success. Karlsson is someone the Senators heavily rely upon to eat minutes and he’s as versatile as anyone with the puck. He has 13 points in 12 playoffs games playing in this broken foot. That’s incredible. He’ll be a factor.
Guys like Bobby Ryan and Derrick Brassard have stepped up in the playoffs for Ottawa. Ryan struggled to do much of anything in the regular season but he has posted nine points in 12 games. Brassard scored 39 points in the regular season and has nine already in the postseason as well.
Kyle Turris had 55 regular season points but hasn’t been too effective for Ottawa in the postseason. He’s not playing his game and only has six points to show for it. He’ll be someone the Senators rely on to score so he’ll need more production.
Their goaltending tandem is one that can win them games as well.
Craig Anderson posted some really sharp regular season numbers. His wife is currently battling cancer so he was away from the team for a long stretch of time. He played in 40 regular season games as did his backup Mike Condon.
Condon, the former Penguin, also posted solid number in his 40 games played. He currently owns the highest save percentage in Penguins history. Don’t let it fool you. He stopped all the shots he faced in the third period of a blowout earlier in the season.
Anderson is riding a .914 save percentage currently coupled with a 2.49 holds against average.
Injury Report (Pittsburgh)
- Kris Letang– Out for the season with a neck injury.
- Trevor Daley– Day-to-day with a lower body injury. Likely will return during series.
Injury Report (Ottawa)
- Mark Borowiecki– Day-to-day with a lower body injury. Out since game two of round one. No status update.
This will be a different series than many think. The Senators play a trap style of hockey that may force the Penguins to slow down their game a little. Speed is what drives the Penguins. With that being said, I don’t believe the Penguins will lose this series. I’ll take the Penguins in five. Anderson has played at an elite level this season and has the motivation of his wife on his back. He may steal a game or even two. But with how Fleury played in that series, I don’t expect the Penguins to crack against a far less superior team than Washington or Columbus. I’ll say Penguins and Predators in the finals.