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Eastern Conference Final Series Storylines

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

The Pens will play the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Final. Their last postseason meeting came in 2013, when Pittsburgh defeated Ottawa in five games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

While Pittsburgh's rivalry with Ottawa isn't at the same level that it is with their first two opponents, there's definitely a history between the teams and the script plays out more like a soap opera with some of the bizarre stuff that's gone on throughout the years.

Here's a look at the biggest storylines…

FINDING ANOTHER LEVEL

Think about it: the Pens have eliminated two of the NHL's top-four regular-season teams in these playoffs as Columbus was ranked fourth and Washington was ranked first. And they did it with a depleted roster and despite not having played their best, especially in the Second Round.

The Caps outshot the Pens in all seven games, with the first period of Game 7 being the only frame of the entire series that Pittsburgh had the edge. The Caps also routinely outchanced them and as Matt Cullen said after the game, Marc-Andre Fleury stole them more than one game and kept them in the others.

That being said, the Pens had their best game of the postseason in Game 7 on Wednesday at Verizon Center. As Mike Sullivan said, that was the closest thing they've seen to the Pens identity in the playoffs so far. They played fast and aggressive, defended hard, special teams were strong and their goaltending continued to be lights out. It's absolutely something to build on moving forward. "As a group, we know there's another gear and I think we're all just really happy we get a chance to try to find it in this next series," Cullen said.

FLEURY VERSUS ANDERSON

Going back to Fleury - seriously, what more can anyone say about his play? He has been, without question, the Pens' best player and is the biggest reason they are in this position. The veteran netminder has been an absolute rock back there. He's weathered storms during so much sustained pressure and has come up with countless clutch, timely and athletic saves since getting the nod in Game 1 against Columbus. They're going to need that to continue against a team like Ottawa. They aren't a heavy team like Pittsburgh's first two opponents, but they are an opportunistic one.  

There will be another veteran netminder at the other end in Craig Anderson, who's also had an emotional season. While Fleury was named a Masterton Trophy nominee, Anderson was named a finalist after taking multiple leaves of absence during the year to care for his wife Nicholle while she underwent chemotherapy for nasopharyngeal cancer. For that reason, the Pens didn't see a lot of him this season - instead mostly facing backup Mike Condon.

Anderson was strong in the First Round against the Bruins but struggled at times in the Second Round against the Rangers. However, he had his best performance in Ottawa's series-clinching Game 6 win and will look to build on that moving forward. He'll have his work cut out for him against a team as talented as Pittsburgh.

NO KARLSSON VERSUS LETANG

The marquee matchup for this series would have been Kris Letang versus Erik Karlsson, but unfortunately we won't get to see that with the Pens defenseman sidelined after undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck. Letang is arguably the Pens' most important player, and is irreplaceable. But you have to give so much credit to the Pens for finding ways to win without him.

It certainly hasn't been easy. It's been incredibly difficult. There have been games throughout these playoffs where the Pens struggled to get the puck out of their zone and up the ice, an area they sorely miss Letang. But they've gotten the job done as a five-man unit, six including Fleury. They seemed to have a breakthrough game in Game 7 in that regard with their breakouts and team defense.

They're going to have their work cut out for them against Ottawa, with Karlsson driving the Senators with his dynamic play. The 26-year-old won the Norris Trophy in 2012 and '15 and was voted a finalist for the award this season. And Karlsson may be up for another trophy in the Conn Smythe with how he's performing these playoffs. After taking care of his own end, his speed, puck-moving ability and offensive instincts makes him such a threat at the other end as well. Karlsson finished the regular season with 17 goals and led the team with 71 points. He has continued that into the postseason, as Karlsson collected a team-high 13 points (2G-11A) in the first two rounds despite playing through a lot and playing a lot, as he is averaging 28:56 minutes these playoffs with an injured foot.

CLUTCH KIDS

There's going to be a lot of attention around players like Karlsson, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and the other established stars. But for me, the players to watch are the up-and-coming stars.

Crosby's linemate Jake Guentzel enters this series scoring at an absolutely scorching pace. Every time it looks like he's going to slow down, he just keeps scoring. The 22-year-old enters the third round with a NHL-leading NINE goals in just 12 games, and it's truly remarkable what he's been able to do in the first NHL playoffs of his young career. Meanwhile, Bryan Rust - who turns 25 today - continues to impress in his second NHL postseason, building on his reputation of being a clutch scorer in elimination games. He's got five goals these playoffs, three coming in those situations. If they can continue to contribute like they have, the Pens will be in good shape.

On the other side, Jean-Gabriel Pageau has been the biggest story for the Sens. The 24-year-old is ranked third in NHL playoff goal scoring with seven goals in 12 games. Pageau had the game of his life in Game 2 of the Second Round against the Rangers, scoring four goals - one of them being the double-OT winner - in Ottawa's incredible 6-5 victory. He followed that up by cementing their series-clinching Game 6 win with an empty-netter. Pageau will certainly be a player to watch.

SULLIVAN VERSUS BOUCHER

Mike Sullivan will deflect all the credit to his players for getting this far, but he deserves a ton of it as well. The job he has done to keep his team on task despite dealing with so many injuries for such an extended period of time and against such tough opponents has been truly incredible, and is something he'll have to continue.

Sullivan did a lot of mixing and matching in the Second Round in particular, never hesitating to switch up his lines to find a spark or make difficult lineup decisions for the good of the group. "As a group, Sully and all of us, we've been through a lot in a short period of time," Cullen said. "X's and O's, he's one of the very best coaches I've played for and I think just motivationally he does a heck of a job and I think he's got a real feel for the pulse of our group." 

Sullivan came in and immediately took control when he was named head coach of the Pens on Dec. 12, 2015, and that's what Guy Boucher did after getting named head coach of the Sens on May 8, 2016. Boucher, who was behind the bench for Tampa Bay when they defeated the Pens in the first round back in 2011, has gotten his players to buy into his defense-first, detail-oriented system since training camp and they're vocal about how much they respect it and trust in it. How the Pens attack Ottawa's 1-3-1 neutral-zone strategy is definitely something to watch. Boucher has also had his players work on reloading mentally and emotionally from good and bad moments, which has helped them find success these playoffs.

SPECIAL TEAMS

After being a difference-maker in the First Round, Pittsburgh's power play had its ups and downs in the Second Round, going 3-for-22 in the series. When they were on, they were really on - and when they were off, they were really off. They have to try and be more consistent in that area and take advantage of the advantages they get.

While the numbers for Pittsburgh's penalty kill aren't great - they allowed four goals on 23 tries - it came up clutch when the Pens needed it most, particularly in Game 7. They did a tremendous job of getting clears and forcing Washington to go the length of the ice to retrieve them. However, they're going to have a big challenge against Ottawa, who scored on the power play in all three regular-season meetings.

Their unit is quarterbacked by Karlsson, but forward Mike Hoffman may be the player to watch as all three of those power-play tallies came off his stick. He's fast, skilled, has a good shot and strong offensive instincts.

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