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Penguins vs. Senators playoff preview

Pittsburgh's speed, Ottawa's structure keys to Eastern Conference Final

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

Pittsburgh Penguins (M2) vs. Ottawa Senators (A2)

Season series: Ottawa 2-1-0

Last playoff meeting: 2013 Eastern Conference Second Round; Penguins won series 4-1

All-time playoff series: Penguins lead 3-1


How they got here

The Pittsburgh Penguins advanced to the Eastern Conference Final by defeating the Washington Capitals in seven games in the Eastern Conference Second Round. The Penguins won 2-0 in Game 7 on Wednesday after leading the series 3-1 but losing Games 5 and 6. The Ottawa Senators advanced by defeating the New York Rangers in six games, ending the series with a 4-2 victory at Madison Square Garden.

The best-of-7 conference final begins at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).

The Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup champions, finished second in the Metropolitan Division (111 points). The Senators finished second in the Atlantic Division (98 points) and are in the conference final for the first time in 10 years. 

Video: Take a look at the Penguins vs. Senators series


5 storylines

Underdogs again: Ottawa coach Guy Boucher has touted the Senators as the underdog throughout the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, even though they had home-ice advantage in each series. They defeated the injury-riddled Boston Bruins in the first round and got past the Rangers in the second round despite being outscored in the series. But there's no question the Senators will be underdogs against the Penguins. The Senators have gone further than almost anyone expected them to, but defeating the Penguins figures to be a more difficult task. 

Speed vs. slowdown: This series figures to be a battle between the NHL's fastest team (Pittsburgh) and one that has built its identity around slowing down the opposition (Ottawa). However, the Senators struggled to handle the Rangers' speed at times and will be significantly tested against the Penguins. 

Time off for Erik Karlsson: By finishing off the Rangers in six games, the Senators earned a three-day break before the conference final begins, one more day than the Penguins. The time off figures to be especially helpful to Karlsson. The defenseman has been the biggest factor in getting Ottawa to this point but has been playing with two hairline fractures in his left heel.

Video: Jaffe and Nash break down Erik Karlsson's shot

Defensive depth: The Penguins have won their first two series without No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang, who is out for the rest of the playoffs after neck surgery. They also didn't have defenseman Trevor Daley in Games 6 and 7 against Washington. The Penguins' depth on defense will be tested again by the Senators and a return by Daley would be welcome.

How far with Marc-Andre Fleury?: Just as the Penguins did in the playoffs last year, they are relying on their backup goaltender after the starter was injured. In 2016, it was Matt Murray taking over for Fleury. This year has been the opposite, with Fleury stepping in after Murray was injured during the warmup for Game 1 of the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets and going 8-4 through the first two rounds. Murray was healthy enough to dress as Fleury's backup for Game 7 against the Capitals, and if Fleury hits a rough spot, will coach Mike Sullivan turn to Murray?


By the numbers

3.42: Goals per game scored by the Penguins in the playoffs, the most of any team. The Senators are third among the four remaining teams at 2.83.

6: Goals scored by Ottawa forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau in the second round against the Rangers. Pageau scored 12 goals in 82 regular-season games. Ottawa scored 19 goals against New York.

250: Shots blocked by the Penguins during the playoffs, the most in the NHL. The Senators, who have talked about how important blocks are to their game plan, have blocked 195.


In the spotlight

Penguins: Marc-Andre Fleury, goaltender -- Fleury (29 saves) was superb in Game 7 against the Capitals, especially in the first 10 minutes when Washington dominated play. He's played every minute through the first two rounds and has a 2.55 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in 12 games.

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm7: Fleury denies Orlov, rebound attempts
Senators: Erik Karlsson, defenseman -- Karlsson might be the best player on any team through the first two rounds of the playoffs. He played huge minutes against the Bruins and Rangers (28:56 per game). He's first among defensemen and tied for sixth among all players with 13 points (two goals, 11 assists), and each of his goals has been a game-winner. Though Boucher has talked about being smart with Karlsson's minutes, it's almost impossible to keep him off the ice. 


Keys to victory

Penguins: Be themselves. The Penguins need to concentrate on doing exactly what they have been doing, playing exactly as they have been playing though the first two rounds. That means using their speed offensively and defensively, capitalizing on scoring opportunities and getting solid goaltending. 

Senators: Stick to their structure. The Senators' success is based on adhering to their system, something they did for much of the second round, though not throughout. They allowed too many breakaways to the Rangers, something they cannot do against the Penguins. Ottawa's 1-3-1 system has to slow down Pittsburgh through the neutral zone.

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