NEW YORK -- It is nearly impossible to predict the curves of an NHL season, the twists and turns and injuries, the adjustments and additions and the way things come together. Sometimes teams that were expected to be great, fail. Sometimes teams that were expected to be mediocre, soar.
Sometimes you are left shrugging, wondering how and why it all happened, even as you watched the chemistry and the cohesiveness of a team come together.
Such are the Ottawa Senators of 2016-17.
The Senators perhaps should have lost in the Eastern Conference First Round to the Boston Bruins, before the Bruins lost three of their top four defenseman and their second-line center.
[RELATED: Complete Senators vs. Rangers series coverage]
The Senators perhaps should have lost in the Eastern Conference Second Round to the New York Rangers, who trailed only 13:10 in the first five games before caving in in Game 6.
Instead, the Senators are moving on after a series-clinching 4-2 win at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday that sent them to the Eastern Conference Final, where they will play either the Pittsburgh Penguins or Washington Capitals, who play Game 7 in Washington on Wednesday.
And once again the Senators will be an underdog.
"I think John Wooden said it best, probably: 'I don't think there's any limit to what our team can do when no one cares who gets the credit,' " Senators coach Guy Boucher said, when asked how his team has gotten to this point.
Video: OTT@NYR, Gm6: Hoffman redirects Karlsson's blast
"When your high-end skill guys are ready to pay the price, it's because they don't care who gets the credit and it's all about everybody else but themselves. And I think that's been the strength of our group since, since the beginning of the season. Not just in the playoffs."
So, at this point, who knows what these Senators can do? Who knows who they can beat?
Anyone, it seems.
"Knowing we're underdogs going into series, maybe that takes a little pressure off us," forward Clarke MacArthur said. "There's no one [who] picked us to win this series, I'm guessing. With the experience they have and the lineup they have, they have a great hockey team here. We're just feeling fortunate to get through it."
Ultimately, the best explanation, the one that makes the most sense for the Senators, comes in the form of a single player: Erik Karlsson.
It comes in the form of will and talent pushing a team from where it could have been to where it is, to a place where it could beat a team like the Rangers, which had proven to be better over the regular season and, in many ways, over the series.
It was Karlsson who scored the game-winning goal on Tuesday, getting to the edge of the left circle to be in perfect position to take the feed by Bobby Ryan at 15:53 of the second period and give Ottawa a 3-1 lead.
It was Karlsson who played a shift of 2:30 at 11:36 of the third period, followed by 53 seconds on the bench, followed by another shift of 1:42, followed by 57 seconds on the bench, followed by a final shift of 2:15.
In all, Karlsson played 28:44, with a goal and the primary assist on the Senators' first goal, a redirect by Mike Hoffman off a Karlsson shot. He was on the ice for all four Ottawa goals -- and for neither of those by the Rangers.
Video: OTT@NYR, Gm6: Anderson shrugs off Stepan's chance
More than anyone, including those playing on two healthy feet, Karlsson made this happen.
"I can't explain it," Boucher said. "Just one of those guys that, like all the other top-quality stars that evolve into winners, whether it's [Sidney] Crosbys and those guys, that's what he has. He's got not just the technical qualities, he's got the emotional, physical qualities.
"He's definitely been a real team guy. He's become a terrific leader and somebody that cares about everything else but himself. That's why he's doing it. Because it's not about him."
Except, in so many ways, it is. It is about what he can do and what he can bring and how far he can push this team. He is the driver. He is the soul. He is the Ottawa Senators. As much as anything else, the answer to, 'How did the Senators get here?' is Erik Karlsson.
"I don't think you can keep moving forward without a good leader and a guy that's willing to do all the little things," MacArthur said. "He's doing that, and when he's doing that you look down the bench and no excuses for anyone else if the best 'D' in the world is blocking shots and making the plays and taking the hits. How can you not go out and do the same thing?"
The Senators will again be underdogs in the next round, and they welcome it. They had, as forward Bobby Ryan put it, "a mindset and a belief" that they were going to beat the Rangers. And they will go into the conference final with the same attitude, even though getting to the Stanley Cup Final still seems a near impossibility for a team that has made anything possible.
"I don't think I need to answer that one," Boucher said, when asked if his team would be the underdog again. "As long as we're dogs and we're fighting in the ring there, at least we're there. Over- or underdog, let's leave it at dogs. How's that?"