On paper you see the 7th place Ottawa Senators squaring off against the 1st place Pittsburgh Penguins, and you feel sorry for the slaughter the Senators are going to go through. But the best part about the NHL playoffs is what's written on paper doesn't matter once you hit the ice. Just ask the Penguins how their easy round one with the 8th place New York Islanders panned out.
The Senators are not your typical 7th seeded playoff team. When you look at the final Eastern Conference playoff standings just 2 points separated 8th from 5th. The Senators were one win shy of 5th place and a match with the Boston Bruins and just one point up on 8th and a first round match with the Penguins. Since the East was so close and the Sens were just one point out of 5th you have to treat the Senators like a 5th seeded team.
After a hard-fought series with the Islanders, the Penguins must be ready for another hard-fought series with the Sens. The Sens are a very young and skilled team. They don't just rely on one guy to get the job done, it's a combined effort from everyone. The Senators easily dispatched of the number 2 ranked Montreal Canadiens by forcing them back on their heels and getting them off their game. If the Sens can do that again, it could be another long series for Crosby and the Pens, one that could see them eliminated.
While the Senators are nothing like the Philadelphia Flyers or Boston Bruins when it comes to physical play, the playoffs require every team to raise their level of physicality and the Sens have done that. Remember the big hit Eric Gryba laid on Lars Eller? Or game 3 when both teams barely had enough players to ice 2 lines after a line brawl?
The Senators, a much tougher team, baited the Canadiens into a physical battle. If the Sens manage to draw the Pens into that physical battle and force them off their game plan, it'll be lights out for the Pens who will be wondering what hit them.
The Ottawa Senators are also not the same team as they were 3 months ago. Erik Karlsson is back in the line-up and is beginning to look like the Norris winning defencemen he was a year-ago, Craig Anderson is back between the pipes and has been lights out posting a .950 Save Percentage and the Sens could be getting another boost should Jason Spezza return to the line-up.
The Senators are a young team that has been relying on the youthfulness of Erik Karlsson, Mika Zibanejad, Cory Conacher, Kyle Turris and Jean-Gabriel Pageau to lead the team. While the Pens rely on the skill of Sidney Crosby, James Neal and Evgeni Malkin to lead the way. The Penguins are a much older team than the Sens and use their veteran leadership and depth throughout the line-up to their advantage. But their age truly showed in round one against the Islanders. They were slow and lost battles for loose pucks all series, the Sens should be able to exploit that with their younger quicker players.
The two things that make the Senators a very scary threat in the East is their goaltending and defence.
The Penguins got lucky having to face a weak goalie in Evgeni Nabokov who allowed them to keep pace with the goals the Islanders were scoring. The Senators have one of the best netminders in the league in Craig Anderson. If the Penguins go back to Marc-Andre Fleury and he falters early on, the Sens will jump all over it and Anderson will shut the door.
Anderson is boasting a 1.80 Goals Against Average and a .950 Save Percentage while only allowing 9 goals throughout the first 5 games of the playoffs. The Sens don't let a lot of goals in, the Pens will need to score 1 or 2 garbage goals and then rely on their goaltending to squeak out close games in this series.
Then there's the whole matter of defence, before you even get to the brick wall that is Anderson. Their defence was the 2nd best in the NHL during the regular season allowing just 2.08 goals a game. Their penalty kill was the best ranked in the league killing off an outstanding 88% of their penalties. Plus they have one of the best defenceman in the NHL back on their blue-line with Karlsson who isn't afraid to rush the puck and pick up the slack by netting some goals himself.
The second round match-up between the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins is going to be a tough series and perhaps one of the closest in the playoffs. All the pressure will be riding on the Penguins a role reversal from 2007, the last time the Senators beat the Penguins in the playoffs. The Penguins are the team that everyone was and is expecting to challenge for the Stanley Cup and the Senators are just a speed block on that journey. The Senators have nothing to lose in this series, they've already come farther than most expected and have shown just how good a team they have.
After their tough series win over the Islanders the Penguins are a team that is down on the matt and now is the perfect time for the Sens to jump quickly and kick them while they're down. The Senators may be the Penguins toughest opponents in this years playoffs, the question becomes can they survive two series' where the underdog teams give them all they can handle?
At the end of the day this series is likely going to come down to goaltending. The Senators have no issues with Anderson and know he can get the job done. The Penguins have a number one goalie who can't stop a beach ball and is rattled, while their back-up is capable. Do the Penguins let Tomas Vokoun have a shot or do they go back to Fleury? Whoever the Penguins choose to go with will have to come up big in this series.
With Craig Anderson leading the way, the Ottawa Senators have all the tools to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. In fact the Senators pose a very real Stanley Cup threat, not bad for a team who was decimated with injuries in March.