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Conference Final

5 storylines for Eastern Conference Final

Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, short leash on Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury among areas to watch

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

The Pittsburgh Penguins are four wins from reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year. Standing in the way of the defending champions are the Ottawa Senators, a team very few thought could get to the Eastern Conference Final.

The Senators have enjoyed playing the underdog role since the start of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They defeated the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, each in six games.

There's no doubt they'll be the underdog against the Penguins, who are trying to become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98 to repeat as champions. The Penguins defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games and the Washington Capitals in seven to get this far.

Game 1 of the best-of-7 series is in Pittsburgh on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).

Here are 5 storylines to pay attention to during the best-of-7 series:


1. Is Erik Karlsson the best player in the series?

The mere suggestion that Karlsson would be the best player in a series that features Penguins centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would raise eyebrows across the hockey world.

But the Ottawa defenseman arguably has been the best player through the first two rounds of the playoffs despite playing with two hairline fractures in his left heel. He basically willed the Senators past the Rangers with big goals or assists in big moments in each of their wins.

He scored the game-winning goals in Games 1 and 6. He had the assist on Jean-Gabriel Pageau's tying goal with 62 seconds left in the third period of Game 2. In Game 5, he had assists on Derick Brassard's tying goal at 18:34 of the third and on Kyle Turris' overtime goal.

The Senators' chances of winning the series dramatically increase if Karlsson is the best player on the ice for either team. He can be.

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


2. Marc-Andre Fleury's leash gets shorter

Fleury could be considered the Pittsburgh's most valuable player in the playoffs. If that doesn't continue, there's a chance we could see Matt Murray against the Senators. He was healthy enough to be Fleury's backup for Game 7 against Washington on Wednesday.

Murray, expected to be the starter during the postseason, sustained a lower-body injury in warmups prior to Game 1 of the first round.

Fleury was pressed into action and has responded with eight wins, a 2.55 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage in 12 games. He had a 29-save shutout in a 2-0 win in Game 7 at Washington.

However, Murray appears ready to go, and if Fleury can't keep answering the bell, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan likely would not have an issue making the goalie switch.

This isn't to say a goalie change will happen. But with a healthy Murray, there's no doubt Fleury's leash is shorter.

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm7: Fleury denies Orlov, rebound attempts


3. Dion Phaneuf vs. Phil Kessel

Phaneuf and Kessel were teammates with the Toronto Maple Leafs for six seasons (2009-10 to 2014-15). They were the two most prominent players to be traded away by the Maple Leafs as part of their rebuilding effort.

By all accounts, Phaneuf and Kessel appear to be close friends. Phaneuf told Sportsnet in July that he was in touch with Kessel throughout the Penguins' playoff run last year. Kessel famously backed Phaneuf during a rant March 3, 2015, when he blasted the media for its high level of scrutiny of Phaneuf, then the Maple Leafs captain.

Now they are opponents and could see plenty of ice time against one another, especially if the Senators try to put Karlsson and defense partner Marc Methot against Crosby as often as they can. It would leave Phaneuf and defense partner Cody Ceci to get a lot of Malkin and Kessel.

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


4. Marc Methot to the madness

Crosby vs. Karlsson clearly is the marquee matchup of the series, but an incident between Crosby and Methot during the regular season certainly will get plenty of attention leading into Game 1.

On March 23, a Crosby slash broke a finger on Methot's left hand. Methot missed the final nine games of the regular season and Game 1 of the first round against the Bruins.

Methot has been a mainstay in the Senators lineup since Game 2 against the Bruins, playing regularly on the top defense pair alongside Karlsson. Crosby is back playing for the Penguins after missing Game 4 against the Capitals because of a concussion.

This story might not have legs once the series starts, unless a rivalry between Crosby and Methot develops on the ice too, but expect to hear about it, especially in Ottawa, during the next few days.

Video: The guys discuss the Senators losing Methot to injury


5. Senators going for that cardiac role

If the games are tight, you wonder if that favors the Senators considering they are 7-2 in one-goal games this postseason.

Their four wins against the Bruins in the first round were by one goal, and their first three wins against the Rangers were by one goal. They had the lead against New York for a combined 13:10 through five games.

The Penguins are 3-2 in one-goal games. Three of their wins have come by three goals or more, which also should be alarming to the Senators.

Video: NYR@OTT, Gm5: Turris goes five-hole for OT win

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