The Pittsburgh Penguins certainly have an advantage heading into their Eastern Conference Final matchup versus the Ottawa Senators. After eliminating the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games — a 108-point regular season team — then performing their annual duty of beating the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, they’ll face a Senators team that most folks are overlooking already. It’s hard to blame everyone, though, as the Senators are the only team to make the postseason with a negative goal differential (-2) in the regular season and their path to the conference final went through teams seeded seventh and fifth, respectively.
But let’s remember that the playoffs are a completely different animal.
These two teams are quite different from one another, which makes this matchup even more intriguing. The Penguins will look to impose their will on the Senators, something they weren’t able to do against Columbus or Washington in the first two series. Ottawa, though, will look for early leads and an opportunity to lock things down structurally to smother Pittsburgh’s offensive attack. Considering the Penguins’ slow starts this postseason, they could find success with that approach. Will it be enough for the underdog Senators to make this a series?
Goaltending as Crucial as Ever
There are a few things to watch closely in this series, and goaltending is certainly one of them. Out of 16 playoff teams, the Penguins rank 13th in shots on goal per hour. They are dead last in shot attempts per hour as well, a complete contrast to what’s expected from this group. They have, however, been dangerous with counter attacks and a large percentage of their chances are from prime scoring areas. That’s where Craig Anderson comes in.
Anderson boasts an impressive 83.61-percent high danger save percentage, according to Corsica.Hockey. He’s faced the same amount of high danger shots against as Marc-Andre Fleury but has allowed five fewer goals from that area. Of course, he’ll be staring at the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin while getting harassed by Patric Hornqvist and rookie sensation Jake Guentzel — who has been extremely dangerous around the crease — this round.
Still, those are impressive numbers and if the Penguins’ shot metrics remain flat, it could be a huge storyline.
When the Senators faced the New York Rangers last round, they tallied 29 high-danger shots against Henrik Lundqvist. That’s one more than the Capitals accrued against Fleury and shows their ability to create solid scoring chances. They didn’t dominate in that regard, quite the opposite actually, but Fleury’s 75-percent high-danger save percentage means it could be an issue again. That’s where the Capitals found ways to capitalize in Games 5 and 6. The Senators won’t beat Fleury from the perimeter but if they can infiltrate Pittsburgh’s defense, they’ll get on the board.
Fleury has been magnificent, but that’s the one area of concern this postseason. Pittsburgh’s defense should be able to stymie the Senators attack much easier than Washington, though.
The Karlsson Factor
Erik Karlsson, like Kris Letang when healthy, drives the Senators’ attack from the backside. He has 13 points through 12 playoff games and has played himself into Conn Smythe conversations. Whether the Penguins can find a way to shut him down will tell be the biggest story of this series.
Consider his impact on teammates at even strength so far this postseason.
The red dots indicate the share of shot attempts for each individual without Karlsson on the ice, while the blue dots represent their number together. Everyone sees a significant boost. There’s a reason he’s a Norris Trophy winner and perennial contender for the award.
Pittsburgh’s forecheck and their ability to pressure him will be extremely important. It’s simple, shutting him down means shutting the Senators down. If only it was actually simple to accomplish that. The Crosby unit will likely get this assignment for most of the series and through three regular season games in 2016-17, they’ve lined up against each other for nearly 28-minutes at even strength with Karlsson coming out on top in terms of possession (per NaturalStatTrick.Com).
Ultimately, Ottawa being a bit of a one-trick pony is why the Penguins are still heavily favored in this matchup. For the record, give me Pittsburgh in six games. This won’t be the blowout that so many are predicting and we’ll likely see close games with Ottawa trying to trap the Penguins into oblivion. It won’t get them to the Stanley Cup Final, though.