The NHL's Eastern Conference Finals gets underway Saturday at 7 p.m. in Pittsburgh as the defending Stanley Cup Champions take on those pesky Ottawa Senators. For the Penguins, it's rather quite simple - this is where they expected to be when the season started, and everything has gone according to plan. Crosby and Malkin are producing and the team is getting timely contributions from breakout star, Jake Guentzel. The third-round pick in the 2013 draft has already set the Penguins' franchise rookie record for most points in a single postseason with 14. What makes this feat even more remarkable is that the previous record (held by Jaromir Jagr) was done over the course of a postseason - 24 games. Guentzel has done it in 12. Dating back to the regular season, Guentzel now has 47 points in 52 games. Take that production away and I may have been forced to write about the Washington Capitals instead.
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On the other side of the coin is the Ottawa Senators. With all due respect to the Senators fan base, I would classify the Sens as the surprise of the postseason. They faced a ton of adversity this season through injuries and personal issues, but that seems to have brought the team closer together and has given them that extra push when the going got tough in the first two rounds. Their lineup isn't littered with superstars, but head coach, Guy Boucher has got the team to buy in and now they look as dangerous a team as any. However, the Penguins represent the teams' greatest challenge to date, and it will be interesting to see who wins the battle of Erik Karlsson vs. Sidney Crosby.
In terms of betting this series, Bovada has tabbed the Penguins as heavy -290 series favorites, while the Senators check in at +245. Game 1 of this best-of-seven series has Pittsburgh -220, with the total sitting at 5.5, -125 to the "under". If you are looking past this round, you can get the Pens at +150 to win the Cup and the Sens at +575.
But before you make up your mind, let me help you understand who should have the edge in terms of goaltending, offensive production, defensive resilience and everyone's favorite category, special teams.
Goaltending & Defense
Sometimes the best trade a team can make is to not make any at all. Thankfully for the Penguins, they chose to keep goalie Marc-Andre Fleury instead of shipping him off at the trade deadline. "The Flower", as he's known, has been a revelation for this team and he looks like the Fleury that backstopped the Penguins to their last two Stanley Cups. Fleury's record so far this postseason speaks for itself - 8-4, .927 save percentage, 2.55 goals against average and one shutout. Not bad considering he had to face the high-powered offense of Washington for seven games. What makes this Penguins run so impressive is that they are doing it without their best defensemen, Kris Letang. It'll be interesting to see if the defense corps can hold up against a free-wheeling Senators attack.
I find it tough to write this paragraph about Craig Anderson and strictly stick to hockey numbers and facts. Craig Anderson's life was turned upside down this season due to his wife's bout with cancer. Anderson was forced to take several leaves from the team. However, in the limited games he did start, he played outstanding. His postseason numbers have dipped a bit, but Anderson still owns an 8-4 record with a .914 saver percentage and a 2.49 goals against average. Most of those numbers can be credited to Anderson, but he has a few workhorses on defense that make his job a bit easier to do. Karlsson is going to be this year's Norris Trophy winner (best defensemen), and when he's on the ice the other team seems to never have the puck. Mix in the big-body presence of Dion Phaneuf and Marc Methot, and the Senators might just have the backend to contain the likes of Crosby and Malkin.
Offense & Special Teams
There are no surprises with the Penguins offense. Crosby and Malkin are the key contributors, while players like Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and the aforementioned Guentzel have all pitched in with solid production. So far this postseason, Malkin leads all playoff scorers with 18 points, while Crosby and Guentzel have 14, which ties them for fourth. The Penguins rank first in goals per game (3.4), first in shots per game (33.5) and fourth in shooting percentage (10.1). They own the fifth-best power play this postseason at 21.6 percent and the 10th-best penalty kill at 80 percent. The only real concern I have with this unit is the health of No. 87. Crosby missed Game 4 of the Capitals' series with a potential concussion, and any hit, innocent or not, could ultimately lead to Crosby missing more action.
The Senators are a weird team offensively. They have a few talented players
like Bobby Ryan and Derick Brassard and then a slew of guys who don't
strike fear into their opponent's eyes. However, just like the Penguins,
they have their own breakout star of this postseason run. Jean-Gabriel
Pageau was the Game 2 hero against the Rangers, potting four goals,
including the OT winner. He's been playing just about 20 minutes per night,
and the puck seems to find him wherever he is on the ice. If he can
continue playing well and the secondary scoring can pick up and help out
Ryan and Brassard then the Senators might be able to wear down the
Penguins' beat-up defense with their speed and make Fleury look ordinary
On paper, this is a mismatch. The defending Cup Champions versus an overachieving team. The offensive firepower of Crosby and Malkin versus the non-flashy likes of Ryan and Brassard. As a Leaf fan, I can't bring myself to cheer for the Senators, even if they are Canada's only remaining team. As a human being, however, Anderson's story is one that I am rooting for to have a happy ending - both on and off the ice. However, with that said, I still think the Penguins have too much skill for the Senators to handle. Home ice-advantage will play a big role in the series, and I can see this series going seven games. I can also see a lot of goals being scored, which means the "over" is likely the play each game.
Pick: Pittsburgh in seven.
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