The Story So Far:
Making the NHL playoffs is no great feat. It’s much better than the alternative, but more than half the league does it every year. Basically any team is capable of making the playoffs in any given year if everything goes right for them. Winning a single round is good, but it’s hardly something one could ever characterize as “A Run”. Sens fans don’t look back fondly on the 2013 Playoffs as anything other than “The Time We Beat The Habs And It Was Great”. Winning a single playoff round is making out with a stranger at a club: pretty fun for what it was, but hardly worth mentioning in the long run.
But making the Conference Finals? That’s rarefied air. By the time you make it that far, hockey media has no choice but to talk about you. Your games get a whole night to themselves. Pierre McGuire is there. It’s the Final Four. You’re in the 87th percentile. The teams you play are Actually Good. It’s real and meaningful. Even if Ottawa gets swept by Pittsburgh, this will still be the 3rd most successful season in franchise history. This team is Special now, and we shouldn’t forget to appreciate every moment. Ottawa doesn’t see this type of thing every year. Few teams do.
And the reason for that is because winning two series in a row is HARD1. We’re awash in “The Sens got lucky and had an easy bracket” takes at the moment, but if winning “easy series” is so easy, let’s see you do it. Go on, Montreal. Beat the Rangers if it’s so simple. Boston got to play The Easiest Playoff Opponent of Them All and they’ve been on the golf course for weeks now. There are no free lunches in the playoffs.
Well, except for Calgary. Brian Elliott is The Free Lunch GAWD.
Don’t be taken for a ride by Take Hucksters. If Ottawa is getting lucky, they aren’t getting lucky in the traditional sense i.e. by having their goalie float them while getting dominated in shots and possession. They’re getting lucky by going 5-1 in overtime games. They’re getting lucky by having Erik Karlsson on their team. They’re winning games in the margins, but they’re also giving themselves opportunities to succeed and that is not luck.
That said, Ottawa only led against the Rangers for something like 60 minutes total, and continuously coming back from one or two goals down is no way to live. That stuff isn’t going to cut it from here on out. Ottawa will have to win games now. It’s no longer enough for them to not beat themselves.
The Bad News:
My desire to see Ottawa make some “Win Now” trades was no secret. With the Atlantic Division going through a transitional period and no real juggernauts in the Western Conference, it wasn’t hard to conceive of a reality where Ottawa could make the Stanley Cup Final by only having to play one truly elite team. I regret to inform you that the time to play that elite team is now.
I doubt you need me to tell you all the myriad ways that the Sens are up against it in this series. There are bunch of series previews out there all telling you the same thing. Have at it, knock yourself out. You’re probably not here to read the same doom and gloom analysis offered on other (worse) websites, but in truth I have very little to add to what is already out there. The Penguins are the defending champions for a reason. They’re fast, they’re deep, they’re well coached, and they just beat the consensus Cup favourites. The Cup favourites were the Washington Capitals, but still. Ottawa’s only won 3 games combined in their last 3 playoff series against Pittsburgh. Sure Ottawa’s had the occasional bright spot against Pittsburgh, but in general the Penguins are a bad matchup for Ottawa. They’re a bad matchup for Ottawa because they’re a bad matchup for almost everyone. God I hate them so much.
However, there are enough questions in my mind regarding the strength of the Penguins that I believe an upset win for the Senators is not totally outlandish. If you wish to harvest the crop of a beautiful and bounteous Stanley Cup Final berth for our beloved Sens, here are the Seeds of Doubt that must be planted.
Can the Penguins goaltending hold up?
I basically believe the Washington Capitals were a smart team who did everything right this season, but let me also say this: that team was NOT inspiring to watch play from behind. No doubt this is a very results oriented observation, but the Senators only won Game 2 and Game 5 against the Rangers because they were extremely successful at desperately throwing the kitchen sink at Henrik Lundqvist. The Capitals not only refused to throw sinks, but they refused to even consider a basic remodeling of the guest bathroom. They made some passes, took some shots, and then Marc-Andre Fleury (NOT EVEN PITTSBURGH’S GOOD GOALIE COME ON!!) saved the shots and that was that.
Meanwhile in the other Nation’s Capital, the Sens plan in the offensive zone throughout the playoffs has been to get the rock to Karlsson and go hard to the net. Many goals scored by Ottawa have not been especially sexy, but as they saying goes “They don’t ask you how, they just ask how many.”, and to this point the answer to “How many?” has been “Enough”.
Ottawa will have to get in Fleury’s kitchen and continue to chip in goals of the Extremely Garbage variety to have a chance in this series. Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone should be good for a couple nice looking goals, but to be honest, plays from Hoffman and Stone have not been carrying Ottawa so far. Give me that “Erik Karlsson scoring from behind the goal line” and “Pageau tipping in some wildly Hater-ass goals” shit.
Should Ottawa get to Marc-Andre Fleury early in the series, he will no doubt be pulled in favour of the superior Matt Murray, in which case Ottawa will have to continue to do what they were doing before so who cares?
Can Ottawa adequately dominate the front of the net against Pittsburgh to give themselves a chance? Well this brings me to my next question…
How good is the Penguins defense really?
Avert your eyes, children. I’m about to show you the Penguins’ defense pairings in Game 7 against Washington.
Dumoulin – Hainsey
Maatta – Schultz
Cole – Ruhwedel
Really? I need to be afraid of a top pairing with 36 year old Ron Hainsey on it? Really? Justin Schultz is a viable 2nd pairing defenseman now? Really? The Sens are gonna get rolled by a guy named “Chad”? REALLY??
Don’t get me wrong, it’s very impressive that the Penguins are getting it done with a defense held together by hopes and dreams, but lest we forget: Washington just dominated the shot clock against Pittsburgh for a whole series and the only reason the Pens are here now is because they got bailed out by their backup goalie. Very little about the last series indicated that Pittsburgh was even on the same astral plane as Washington in any categories other than Goaltending, Will to Win, Clutchness, having The Heart of a Champion, and Not Being Huge Chokers. Pittsburgh’s not playing as well as you think.
If the defending champs have a soft underbelly, it is here. Ottawa must take any potential advantage on defense and cling to it like grim death.
This brings me to my next question…
Which team has Erik Karlsson?
I just checked this and the team with Erik Karlsson is the Ottawa Senators. This trend should persist throughout the series.
The Sens are playing some of their best hockey of the year, and for that reason alone I’d be surprised if Pittsburgh dominated this series. In addition, Ottawa has played Pittsburgh pretty close in two out of three games this season. It’s clear the problems the Penguins present are not insurmountable, and the Pens’ superior forward depth could be counterbalanced by their thin defense. That said, a few things must go right for Ottawa:
– Craig Anderson must outplay whoever Pittsburgh starts in net.
– The System must limit Pittsburgh’s zone time and effectively clog the neutral zone.
– We can’t have the Crosby Line AND the Malkin Line going Bergeron on us. Pick one line to get crushed by and stick with it i.e. match Cody Ceci with Malkin.
– Ottawa must take fewer penalties than they draw.
– Erik Karlsson must continue to play at an unprecedented level.
– Ottawa’s top two lines must contribute. Ottawa will not beat Pittsburgh with their depth.
That’s six things. Can we have six things go right just once? One time?
I wouldn’t say it’s likely that Ottawa pulls off the upset, but as they say, you make it in and anything can happen. Let’s make it happen.
Sens in 7
1. Man, winning two series in a row is hard, and you’ve got to do that TWICE to win a Cup. Somehow I don’t think the Stanley Cup gets enough credit for how hard it is to win. Even if there existed a team that was an overwhelming 70% favourite to win every series they played, they’d still only win the Cup 0.74 = 24% of the time. The Blackhawks have had to win two Game 7s to win their three Cups. Sidney Crosby is 2-0 in Game 7s in years in which the he wins the Stanley Cup. The Kings won THREE 7 game series on their way to the Cup in 2014. Regardless of how good they are, every Cup winner is lucky, whether it’s through staying healthy or just winning coin flips. Imagine you’re a GM and ownership gives you a mandate to win a Cup in the next three years. There’s at least a 50% chance you get fired at the end of 3 years even if you do your job perfectly and your team is historically excellent. I say all that to say this: my heart goes out to Capitals GM Brian MacLellen. ↩