PITTSBURGH -- Ottawa Senators coach Guy Boucher spent almost the entire Eastern Conference Second Round talking about his team as the underdogs and the New York Rangers as the Stanley Cup contenders even after the Senators took a 2-0 lead in the series. At the same time he refused to say if he thought his team was also a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, saying instead they were just trying to contend in the series.
It seemed funny then. Boucher even laughed at himself.
It seems absurd now.
[RELATED: Complete Penguins vs. Senators series coverage]
The Senators are in the Eastern Conference Final. They got here after beating the Rangers in six games, outplaying them in a 4-2 win in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. They scored the important, timely goals in the series. They overcame deficits late in Games 2 and 5 to win in overtime. They overcame back-to-back losses in Games 3 and 4 to win Games 5 and 6.
"We've earned our way," Boucher said.
And now they have what many believe is a herculean task for a team that entered the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs with zero expectations and pressure.
To reach the Stanley Cup Final the Senators have to win four out of seven games against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup champions who just beat the Washington Capitals, the Presidents' Trophy winners, in seven games.
Game 1 is at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, CBC, TVA Sports).
Now is not the time to stop playing the underdog card when it so clearly has worked for the Senators.
Just don't tell that to the Senators.
Video: Gord Wilson on playoff history between Pens and Sens
Even through all the admiration Boucher, general manager Pierre Dorion and some players extolled on the Penguins on Friday -- "We have to measure up to the best team in the NHL," Boucher said -- it seemed clear the Senators aren't buying into the underdog strategy near as much as they did against the Rangers.
Maybe winning two rounds does buy a team more belief currency, even when it's staring down its biggest challenge yet.
"We're here for the same reason they are," Ottawa captain Erik Karlsson said. "They've had a good playoffs so far and so have we."
Karlsson wouldn't budge when asked if the Penguins should feel more pressure than the Senators because they're the near consensus pick to win the series.
Two of the 21 NHL.com and NHL Network 'experts' who made predictions for the conference finals picked Ottawa.
For background on how little belief people had in the Senators when the playoffs began, four out of the 21 NHL.com and NHL Network prognosticators had the Senators beating the Rangers in the second round and nine of the 21 had them beating the Boston Bruins in the first round.
"I think both teams have equal pressure," Karlsson said. "We're both here for a reason. We've both done some good things throughout the year, throughout these playoffs. We have to make sure we handle the pressure we have in the right way."
To do that the Senators can take only one course of action.
"You start the game 0-0 and if you limit their opportunities you give yourself an opportunity," goalie Craig Anderson said. "I like our chances."
He does because the Senators, when they're on their game and playing well within their structure, can neutralize what the Penguins do well.
Video: OTT@NYR, Gm6: Anderson shrugs off Stepan's chance
Pittsburgh wants to speed the game up and fly through the neutral zone. Ottawa is at its best when it slows the game down, forces turnovers in the neutral zone and quickly counterattacks.
"I think for the way we play it can get frustrating sometimes as long as we're sticking to it," forward Mark Stone said. "We're going to try to stick to that structure."
They were able to do it only at times against the Rangers, but the Senators still came out ahead. And Boucher said playing the Rangers should serve as preparation for what Ottawa is about to face from Pittsburgh.
"I strongly believe the two fastest teams in the League were the Rangers and Pittsburgh," Boucher said. "Having played the Rangers the previous series obviously that gave us a look and I guess right now we know this is a similar team in terms of the counteracting. If you turn the puck over they're gone. They've got tremendous speed. You won't catch up to them once they're gone.
"It was tough to play against the Rangers because of that. I think Pittsburgh has similar attributes, but they also have high-end superstar forwards on three different lines depending on what they do."
He of course means Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel -- or, the three big reasons the Senators are, in theory, underdogs in this series. Ottawa has Karlsson, but it doesn't have anyone up front to match Crosby, Malkin and Kessel in terms of skill, talent and experience.
"I'm looking forward to that challenge and I know everybody else is as well," Karlsson said.
Now that doesn't sound like a player who is embracing the underdog role.
The Senators know the drill. They know most pundits in the hockey world are picking against them. They know they're not the favorites in this series. But that doesn't mean they see themselves as the underdogs.
"They've proven to be the better team but we know what we can do and we know what we're capable of," Karlsson said. "We're going to try to accomplish that. If we can do that we're going to put ourselves in a good spot."