The Eastern Conference Final.
Before this season, the Senators have only been there twice in their franchise history and it was never supposed to happen this year. Not to this team.
Much can and will be made of the circumstances under which the 2016-17 Ottawa Senators reached the postseason. The NHL’s playoff format punished better Metropolitan Clubs and gave the Senators an easier path. The Boston were decimated by injuries to key positions and were undone by the absence of their second line centre and three of their defencemen. The New York Rangers’ Hall of Fame goaltender Henrik Lundqvist faltered during the series with Senators stopping only 90.5-percent of the shots on goal.
Unquestionably, the Senators’ road to get to this point was relatively easy.
Maybe they could have met a tougher seed like a Pittsburgh or Washington earlier on and suffered the consequences. Or had Erik Karlsson not been able to get that pass through to Derick Brassard in the third period of game two of the Senators’ series versus the Bruins, maybe the Senators lose that game and fail to overcome a 2-0 series deficit.
The Senators have been fortuitous, but when the NHL playoffs represent an exercise in good fortune and very good teams are undone by bad luck each and every year, there’s not a chance in hell that the team, its players or its fans should be feel that this run should be lessened simply because the team continues to take advantage of its situation by winning games. I mean, the same number of people weren’t out there bemoaning the fact that the Edmonton Oilers were one win away from the Western Conference Final because their 11.5-percent chance of winning the draft lottery in 2015 was fulfilled.
Sure, in the larger picture, there’s definitely going to come to a point when management will have to take a critical eye to this club, try not to romanticize the results while also recognizing the limitations of this group in an effort to give this franchise the best opportunity to win again down the road, but that time can wait for the offseason.
Right now, the next test is the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The defending Stanley Cup champions are a handful.
They are fast. They are skilled and they still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin centering their top two lines.
The good news for Ottawa is that maybe for the first time since the 2006-07 season, the Penguins are vulnerable or at the very least, the task of beating the Penguins doesn’t seem as daunting as it once did.
Sure, this could be false confidence talking here, but…
Yeah, it may sound crazy to believe the Senators can win, especially since this undermanned Penguins team just proved itself capable of disposing of the Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals, but maybe there is just a chance that the Senators can get by the Penguins.
To borrow the words from Eugene Melnyk, once you get in, anything can happen. Or at the very least, the Penguins probably represent an easier path to the Stanley Cup Final than the Capitals did, so that’s got to count for something! (And of course, I’m totally ignoring the fact that in each of the Penguins’ past two Stanley Cup championship runs, they beat the Capitals in the second round each time.)
Here’s how the two teams match up at five-on-five based on their underlying numbers this season via Corsica.Hockey:
|5v5||Senators (Rk)||Penguins (Rk)|
|CF%||48.55 (22nd)||51.39 (6th)|
|FF%||48.80 (22nd)||51.24 (7th)|
|SF%||50.10 (17th)||51.39 (6th)|
|Sh%||7.01 (21st)||8.60 (5th)|
|Sv%||92.64 (10th)||92.67 (T-7th)|
|xGF%||49.13 (20th)||52.32 (6th)|
|SCF%||49.70 (19th)||52.81 (5th)|
Give the Penguins get the slight edge there…
Like the Capitals, the Senators haven’t had their share of postseason success over the Penguins in recent years either, but just in case you came here looking for some validation that the Senators can beat the Penguins, here’s a video showing what happened the last time these two teams played with the Senators’ season on the line:
I hate taking joy in the fact that people are hurt, but if there’s a sliver of a chance against the Penguins, it’s created by the mounting injuries — particularly to the blue line — that could play into the Senators’ hands.
Kris Letang, who’s unquestionably their best defenceman, had neck surgery and is expected to be out for the next four to six months. Trevor Daley missed Penguins practice again this morning and he has not skated since leaving game five of the series against the Capitals with a lower body injury. There’s no word on when he is expected to return.
If the Senators can put pressure on these defenders, create turnovers and get their cycle game going, it could open up the middle of the ice like it did for the Capitals.
Continuing with the injury theme, a lower-body injury has kept the Penguins’ best goaltender out of the net for the past 11 games and Marc-Andre Fleury has had to fill the void. Thanks to the prolonged absence, Murray hasn’t had a chance to reclaim his post and because of Fleury’s performance – in which his postseason numbers are markedly better than his regular season numbers – Mike Sullivan has continued to run Fleury out there on a game-in/game-out basis.
If the Senators can win a game or two early on and put some pressure on the prohibitive favorites, it could be an instance where Sullivan turns to Murray to change the momentum – in which case, you have to wonder how long or whether Murray will have enough time to round into form.
Of course, if Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby continue their dominance over Ottawa, none of this really matters.
In 20 games, the two players have combined for 22 goals (Crosby 14, Malkin 8) and 57 (Crosby 33, Malkin 24) points. One of these centres is going to draw regular matchups and log significant minutes playing against Cody Ceci and Dion Phaneuf.
In the 132:58 of five-on-five ice time through the playoffs, whenever the Phaneuf-Ceci has been on the ice, the opposition has scored 70.0-percent of the goals and taken 56.3-percent of the shots.
The speed, skill and tenacity of Pittburgh’s forwards is going to put a ton of pressure on the Senators’ defencemen to move the puck and make good decisions quickly. I’m not worried about Erik Karlsson here, but I can’t say the same for the rest of this group.
By now, everyone’s grown accustomed to seeing the Senators’ second pairing be caved in from a puck possession standpoint, but if Phaneuf and Ceci can bend without breaking, it gives the Senators a chance.
Of course this speaks to the necessity for Craig Anderson to be on point, but if the Senators have an edge in this series, it probably comes in goal. They need him to excel and become a prominent and decisive factor – through the team’s first two series, he hasn’t been at his best.
Through 12 games, Anderson’s sporting 2.49 goals against average, with one shutout and a pedestrian .914 save percentage. At five-on-five, he has the fourth lowest save percentage (.914) amongst goalies who have appeared in the postseason and if he can’t play at a higher level, the Senators will be done.
He has to step up. There’s simply no other alternative if the Senators are going to advance.
Prediction: It’s been a hell of a storybook run, but the Senators are going to have to play at a higher level than what they have exhibited so far in the postseason. I think this will be a much closer series than many are giving it credit for, but it’s difficult not to pick the Penguins in six games.