Thanks to the NHL and their ingenious playoff format, arguably the two best teams in these Stanley Cup playoffs met one another in the second round and it was universally agreed upon that the winner of that series would become the favorite to win it all.
But now that the Washington Capitals are in the rearview mirror, the Pittsburgh Penguins — reigning and defending champions of the NHL — are moving on to Round 3, where they’ll be facing the Ottawa Senators — a team of mostly no-name players that got outscored during the regular season and then again in the second round against New York but has still somehow found themselves in the Eastern Conference final.
It’ll be the fifth time in the past decade that the Pens and Sens will meet in the postseason. Pittsburgh has won three of the four previous meetings, with the Sens lone series win coming in 2006-07, which was the Penguins’ first postseason appearance in the Crosby-Malkin era. Their most recent meeting was in 2012-13 when the Penguins took the Senators lunch money and sent them home for the summer after outscoring them 22-11 in only five games.
We know just from looking at numbers on the internet that the Sens look like an easy pushover for the Penguins, en route to their second consecutive Stanley Cup final appearance. But as we learned in the last series after the Capitals outshot the Penguins in six out of seven games, numbers don’t always tell the whole story.
Here are five things we do know.
1. The net belongs to Marc-Andre Fleury, right?
Fleury has been downright spectacular at points in this postseason. He stole the show multiple times throughout the playoffs and has arguably been the Penguins’ best player to this point in the postseason. Against Washington in Games 1, 2 and 7, which were all on the road against the President’s trophy winners, Fleury was 3-0 and stopped 100 of the 104 shots he faced.
But can Fleury ride this wave all the way to the Stanley Cup? Realistically, it isn’t the most likely scenario, but Fleury hasn’t given us — or more importantly he hasn’t given Mike Sullivan — much reason to doubt he can pull it off.
At the same time, however, Matt Murray was healthy enough to backup Fleury in Game 7. And if he is healthy enough to play the role of backup, that means he is healthy enough to play. Period. The Pens know what they have in Murray. He won the Cup for them last season when Fleury went down, then followed that up with a solid regular season after earning the starting position.
The starting goaltender story itself is something from the bizarro world where everything is backward and time is a flat circle. Although this may be Fleury’s last run as a Penguin, he’s made it almost impossible to turn back to Murray now.
Either way, the Pens would figure to be in good hands. And while we don’t know who Mike Sullivan will turn to against Ottawa, we do know one thing for sure about Sully.
2. Mike Sullivan will not be out-coached.
After getting blown out in Game 6, the Pens looked like they needed a day off. Maybe more than one. Maybe an entire summer. Instead, Sullivan had his group go through a full practice Tuesday to adjust the plan of attack.
They spent the better part of six games letting Washington dictate just about everything, so Sullivan challenged the Penguins to get back to what made them nearly unstoppable last summer. Put the puck in behind their defensemen. Forecheck. Be aggressive, but be smart. It paid off in a big way, as the Pens put on a clinic in Game 7.
The strategy wasn’t the only change made. Sullivan inserted Scott Wilson and Carter Rowney into the starting lineup, moved Patric Hornqvist to the third line, and promoted Bryan Rust to the first. Again, these moves paid dividends, as both Hornqvist and Rust scored goals, and Wilson and Rowney used their speed to makes the Caps’ defensemen’s lives a living nightmare for most of the night.
The Penguins finally looked like the Penguins again — you know, the team that won the Stanley Cup last season — and Sullivan had his fingerprints all over it.
We know his message; we hear it all the time from him, and his players are fond of repeating it back to us, too: Stay the course, trust the process, just play. These words are becoming scripture with this hockey team, and they’re coming to life on the ice at the perfect time. His work isn’t done yet, though. Ottawa has a pretty special player who will present a challenge to match up against…
3. Erik Karlsson is the ultimate game changer.
Let’s be honest: Ottawa isn’t here without Karlsson. The two-time Norris trophy winner has had a Conn Smythe-worthy postseason, leading the Senators in scoring as a defenseman, while playing close to 30-minutes per game. When he’s on top of his game, it makes it that much harder to possess the puck and score goals since he’s always on the ice.
What’s worse: He’s a Penguin killer. He has 27 points in 22-career games against Pittsburgh, including seven in three games this season. And if the Pens start taking penalties, watch out. In their matchups this regular season, Ottawa’s power play was a ridiculous 50-percent (6-for-12), and Karlsson had a point on five of their six goals. If Pittsburgh can’t stay out of the penalty box, it opens the door for Ottawa to leverage a huge advantage.
We know Karlsson is the heartbeat of the Sens, and the Pens will have to account for him. If they can manage to limit him, their chances of winning increase exponentially because …
4. Ottawa’s depth is Bad and Not Good.
Beyond Karlsson and a dangerous first line, there isn’t much the Senators have to offer that should pose a threat to the Penguins.
Ottawa finished the regular season 22nd in the NHL in goals per game with a pedestrian 2.5, despite Karlsson and the first line (Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris and Mark Stone) all registering over 50 points. They more or less rely on catching opponents in transitions with odd-man rushes and breakout plays to score goals — typically all started by Karlsson.
But when those guys aren’t on the ice, specifically Karlsson, they fall off a cliff:
The key to beating Ottawa is to attack their depth. Fortunately for the Penguins, we know depth is one of their strengths.
5. There are plenty of storylines to watch.
Marc-Andre Fleury’s resurrection is a story in itself, but Ottawa has more than their fair share of stories tugging at the heart strings.
Starting goaltender Craig Anderson is playing the best hockey of his life while his wife is battling cancer.
Clarke MacArthur recently came back from a career-threatening concussion.
Kyle Turris scores game-winning goals and then rushes to a banquet for a team of hockey players with developmental disabilities.
There’s more. We also have the storyline of Sidney Crosby and Marc Methot’s finger to watch out for.
And who can forget to infamous CSI: Ottawa.
We know stories can often write themselves in the NHL playoffs. (Who saw this Murray-Fleury story coming a month ago?) We’ll see how this latest chapter in Pens-Sens unfolds beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday when Game 1 faces off at PPG Paints Arena.