The Pens railroaded the Ottawa Senators by a score of 7-0 in Game 4 and now hold a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference final. The Pens have figured out the Sens’ vaunted trap defense, and now it appears the Sens’ greatest trap of all was making everyone believe they had a chance to win this series.
Just three days ago, the Pens were down 2-1 and so desperate for a shake-up that their best player to that point — Marc-Andre Fleury — was pulled from the starting lineup. A goaltending change seemed superfluous when the Penguins had only scored three goals in three games, but what a difference a weekend makes. Now, the Pens have firm control of the series as it kicks back to Ottawa for Game 6 on Tuesday night, and it’s the Senators left searching for a way to rebound.
The Pens are one win away from another trip to the Stanley Cup final. But there’s at least one game left with the Senators before the Pens have the chance to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in the salary-cap era.
Here are five things we know as the Pens look to finish off the Sens.
1. The stars are shining.
Sidney Crosby had two points (one goal, one assist) in Game 4, and added another two (one goal, one assist) in Game 5, which gave him 100 career assists in the postseason. The last two games have arguably been Crosby’s best since sustaining a concussion in Game 3 of the previous round — both on the scoresheet and by the visual observation of Crosby just doing “Crosby-like” things — and his last three goals have all come while the Pens were on the power play.
Crosby appears to be rounding back into form at the most crucial time of the postseason. Meanwhile, the other star center, Evgeni Malkin, has quietly and consistently been trucking along. Malkin had three assists Sunday afternoon and continues to sit atop the postseason scoring list with 23 points (six goals, 17 assists).
We’ve seen it before: When these two are clicking at the same time, the Penguins are virtually unstoppable. The Senators can play any system they want, but if they can’t do anything to slow down Crosby and/or Malkin, they’re not making it back to Pittsburgh for a Game 7.
2. The defense is holding.
It’s been the furthest thing from what you would call pretty, but the Pens are making it work without Kris Letang in these playoffs. They’ve made it work twice earlier this series, with wins in games when they’ve been down to just five defensemen. They’ve made it work without Justin Schultz.
If the Penguins’ defense corps last season was the No-Name Defense, this season’s group could be called the That Guy Still Plays? defense.Or maybe after all the injuries, the Who Do They Have Left? defense. It really defies all logic that the Pens have had so many issues along their blueline, and still somehow found a way to shutout the Sens twice in five games.
The defense is even getting in on the scoring now, too. The Penguins have scored 10 goals in the past two games, with four of them coming via defensemen. Both Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin stepped up to score big goals in Game 4, then Trevor Daley made good on his return to the lineup with two points (one point, one assist) in Game 5.
Now, it looks like the Pens could be close to getting Schultz back in the lineup, after Schultz was at least healthy enough to skate during warm-ups for Game 5.
We’ll see if Schultz is good enough to go for Game 6, and while his presence would be a huge boost, the Pens may not need him to finish off the Sens. The best way to take the pressure off your defense is to control the puck, and the Pens are doing that now, thanks to more consistency up front.
3. The Pens have found consistency with their lines.
Switching the starting goaltender wasn’t the only change Mike Sullivan made going into Game 4. Sullivan made adjustments to each of the lines from top-to-bottom, taking what NBC analysts referred to as the “rabbit and bear” approach to his line combinations. The thinking behind the strategy is to pair a winger who plays a more physical style with another who has more of an offensive upside on either side of the Penguins’ strength up front: their centers.
It was obvious the Penguins found something that could work after Game 4, and it really paid dividends in Game 5 when the Pens got seven goals from seven different players, including at least one goal from all four lines.
The Sens now have to find a way to match the Pens’ newly found depth of scoring. We know that’s not going to be easy for them, as not only are they being outplayed at even-strength, but on special teams, as well.
4. The Sens’ power play has been powerless.
Both Games 4 and 5 saw the Sens go 0-for-4 on the man advantage, and they’ve failed to convert on any of their 15 chances in the series.
Their struggles on the power play run deeper. They’re currently in the midst of a 0-for-28 drought that stretches all the way back to Game 1 of their previous series against the Rangers.
The news gets worse for Ottawa. Erik Karlsson — the Sens’ captain, best player and key cog on their power play — appeared to twist his ankle when he was tangled up with Scott Wilson late in the second period and did not return to the game.
Karlsson not only leads all Sens in points (15), assists (13) and plus-minus (13) this postseason, he also was the NHL’s top defenseman in those three categories. Karlsson had already been dealing with multiple fractures in his foot, and his loss would cripple the Senators in every facet of the game, especially the slumping power play.
5. The Penguins have the better goalie right now.
There’s some merit to the opinion that it doesn’t matter which goalie is starting these days. Both Fleury and Murray are solid choices based on past performances, and both have Stanley Cup championship starting goalie on their resume. But perhaps most importantly, the Penguins’ emphasis on utilizing their speed and talent to score as many goals as possible is the formula that earns the team victories, and all signs are pointing up right now for the offense.
So yeah, maybe it doesn’t matter which goalie is starting.
Either way, both look like they would be better options than Craig Anderson, who just had his 36th birthday spoiled after allowing four goals and being pulled (twice!) from the game in the first period Sunday.
The Pens finally have got into Anderson’s kitchen, and the goaltender is now looking more like the guy who has a 2.70 career goals-against average than the one who had the Penguins frustrated after the first three games of this series.
To his credit, Matt Murray has lived up to his end of the deal on the other side for Pittsburgh. He’s allowed only two goals in his first two starts this postseason and made 25 saves in Sunday’s shutout. If the offense can continue to overshadow him, the story about who is starting in goal becomes a moot point.
Fortunately for Ottawa, the Pens can’t take any of their goals from Sunday with them to Tuesday’s Game 6 in Ottawa. But the Pens do have all the momentum and are looking like the team that won the Cup a year ago. They clearly got into the Sens’ heads during Game 5, and we’ll know for sure if they what kind of team they are after Game 6.