The Eastern Conference Finals are set to kick off on Saturday featuring the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, and the last hope for Canada, the Ottawa Senators. The Penguins are favored to win the Conference Finals, however, but as we’ve seen throughout this postseason, anything can happen in the NHL playoffs.
From the Nashville Predators sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers jumping into the postseason ahead of schedule and looking like they belonged, and even these reigning champs closing out the Capitals in spite of Sidney Crosby suffering a concussion in Game 3 of the second round.
After a hard-fought series against the New York Rangers, the Senators come in with some momentum. The underdogs for much of their playoff run are now playing one of the top dogs in the Pens who showed no mercy against the Columbus Blue Jackets and took down the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals to get here.
Both teams will be looking to win the series for the right to take on the victor in the Western Conference Finals (either the Nashville Predators or Anaheim Ducks) for the Stanley Cup Final.
The Penguins are hoping to be the first team to win back-to-back titles in the salary cap era, while the Senators are looking for their franchise’s first Stanley Cup win. They lost to the Ducks in their only previous appearance in the Cup Final in 2007.
Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11)
Season Series (1-1-0-1)
The Pittsburgh Penguins are a strong team and have proven it not only through their regular season play but through the postseason as well. And they’ve done so once again while battling a triage unit of injuries much like they did last season.
The Pens are without Kris Letang for the duration, and both Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley are currently nursing injuries with their game time status still up in the air. The one piece of good news for the Pens is that Matt Murray is available.
Though Marc-Andre Fleury has been outstanding in his stead, so Murray is likely to remain his backup as he was in his first game back from injury (Game 7 vs. Washington). It’s always a good bet to ride the hot hand for as long as it remains hot no matter who is waiting in the wings.
Fleury was called upon as Murray went down in warmups ahead of the postseason opener against Columbus causing a bit of concern for the Pens run going forward, but apart from a few tough outings, Fleury has looked a lot more like the 2009 vintage of himself than the netminder fans have witnessed in the years since. This should pose some pretty interesting conversations come draft day, as expansion will force the Pens to make a decision, but that will have to wait for another day.
Murray is likely the man who will take over the crease, and Fleury is possibly in the midst of his last hurrah with the team that launched his career but he won’t be thinking much about that with the Ottawa Senators looking to stand in his way to one more Cup win before he departs.
While the Pens tied the Washington Capitals in the regular season series, they were able to overpower them in seven games in the last round. Though Crosby and last season’s breakout star, Conor Sheary suffered concussions in the round and that will likely still be of some concern as the Senators will look to exploit any weaknesses in the Pens captain, and the dynamic young forward. Crosby already had a second close call as he crashed hard into the boards since returning after missing only one game, which created a considerable amount of concern for many given his concussion history.
In the first round, they easily dominated the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games with Fleury standing tall as he took over the responsibilities in the blue paint. While the Jackets had an outstanding season, few considered the young team to be a real challenge for the Pens even with the netminding situation. The Jackets, like the Leafs and Oilers, were perhaps a bit ahead of schedule.
Fleury will once again be looking to reign over the Senators and keep his spot as the top dog for his probable last run towards the Cup with his Pens. Rookie Jake Guentzel will also be looking to continue what has already been an outstanding first playoff campaign, and Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Crosby will be looking to lead the Pens right back to the Cup Final for a chance to hoist the Cup for the second year in a row cementing their franchises place in the dynasty conversation for the salary cap era.
However, Crosby might want to watch his back in this series.
Crosby took a little slash at the Senators’ Marc Methot, in what was a typical hockey play (every player in the NHL is guilty of the occasional slash, stop kidding yourself) with extreme results. There was no penalty on the play, in spite of the injury which was quite gruesome.
— Terez Owens (@TerezOwens) March 26, 2021
The Sens took issue with the slash by the Pens captain and made a point to air their displeasure via the media, so this meeting could see some altercations as the bitterness still remains.
The Penguins are a strong team, having twice made extended playoff runs while battling a slew of injuries to key players and yet here they are looking to make a return trip to the Cup Final. The biggest question will be surrounding Crosby’s concussion. While he returned in the last round after only missing one game, there could still be some lasting effects, but his play in the final games of the previous round seem to indicate he is up to the task.
Ottawa Senators (44-28-10)
Season Series (2-1-0)
The Ottawa Senators have come out of nowhere in these playoffs when many thought they would never get past the Rangers, who were a strong wildcard team. The Sens rode shotgun right behind the Montreal Canadiens practically all season in the Atlantic Division.
In the first round, they were facing the No. 3 seed Boston Bruins who they closed out in six games. The two teams battled hard with neither team winning a game by more than a single point. All but two of the games ended in overtime, one of which took two free periods to complete. Ottawa won three of the four overtime matches.
While Erik Karlsson, a six-time Norris Trophy candidate (two wins, and likely the front runner this season) leads the team, just as he’s done all year with 13 points (2 G, 11 A), Craig Anderson has also been a big part of this teams success. He’s had a few bumps along the way including being yanked once (vs. the Rangers) in favor of backup Mike Condon, but he has also pitched a shutout against Boston and managed to hang on to several one-goal leads throughout the postseason.
Anderson has excelled at keeping his team in games while behind as well.
While many expect their netminder to be outstanding, Anderson has done so throughout the season and playoffs in spite of a personal struggle as his wife, Nicholle is battling nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a form of head and neck cancer. Anderson missed some time to be with his family during the season, but he returned committed to the battle ahead and will undoubtedly play a huge role in this series as he will be facing one of the more elite offensive teams in the league today.
J.G. Pageau has also been a welcome surprise with seven goals this postseason, four of those came in Game 2 against the Rangers. A game that took two overtime frames to complete with Pageau powering the Sens to victory in spite of a stellar effort from Brady Skjei (2 G) for the Rangers.
Having said all of that, Karlsson is the leader on this team and he has been a shining example thus far. Karlsson has been waging war against opposing teams throughout the playoffs with two fractures in his heel. While the pain he is suffering has shown itself on occasion (most notably in his mobility), Karlsson refuses to let it slow him down. He has had to find some new ways to be effective and had some scary moments along the way, but he never gives up.
As a coach and a teammate, that is all you can ask of your captain.
Karlsson has played in every game for his Sens in the post season missing only a third period in the team’s Game 6 loss to the Rangers. While every team the Sens have faced has attempted to stop Karlsson, even with the injury he has been a force.
The Penguins are a tough team, but only time will tell if their strategy for the Sens defender will be more successful than those that came before them. Karlsson, like Crosby, is at the top of every team’s list in terms of shutting them down, but so far those efforts have been largely ineffective on both counts. It seems like a fair bet that Karlsson will be tasked with defending Crosby’s line, so this could shake out to be a captain vs. captain battle.
Penguins have to do what nobody else could this postseason: Stop Erik Karlsson https://t.co/6AfvZGt4Wu
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) May 13, 2020
It’s going to take everything the Sens have to defeat the Penguins and book a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, and there is a fair bit of history that shows they have their work cut out for them. They have faced the Penguins in the postseason four times prior to this series and managed only four wins between them. But, this is a new year, and this team is determined.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) May 13, 2020
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 7
This Eastern Conference Final should be extremely close. The biggest question facing either side will likely revolve around the health of their captain. Is Karlsson’s injury going to be a factor? Is Crosby’s head injury going to pose a problem going forward? We’ll just have to watch and see. One thing is certain, this is likely to be the toughest battle each of these teams has faced in the postseason.
Can Fleury maintain his position, or will Murray put his stamp on the Pens postseason run? Will Methot or one of his teammates seek revenge for the Crosby slash, or shelve that animosity in favor of the battle ahead? There will be no shortage of headlines from this one, and it could turn out to be one of the more entertaining series to watch for that very reason.
These two teams have earned their place in this series with hard-fought victories, injuries, and tremendous leadership from their stars. This one should go the distance in seven games, but ultimately the Pens star power will eclipse the Senators and send them right back to the Stanley Cup Final where they will defend their title.
Penguins in seven. That’s my final answer.