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Answering Five Questions

by Chris Lund / Ottawa Senators

As part of their first round playoff coverage flood, passed along five burning questions ahead of the Sens' series with the Montreal Canadiens. Luckily, as someone who watches A LOT of Senators hockey (Read: All of It) I feel qualified to help them out with the answers ahead of time.

They posed the questions and pondered, and I did my best to answer honestly and objectively.

Let's take a look at what they wanted to know ( breakdowns are in italics)....

1. What shape will Erik Karlsson be in?

Last season's Norris Trophy winner spent most of this season recovering from surgery to repair a 70-percent tear in his Achilles tendon. He looked none the worse for wear in his return, playing more than 27 minutes and assisting on both goals in his first game back. The Senators were good enough to make the playoffs without Karlsson, but they need him to play at his usual high level to win in the postseason.

Obviously Karlsson's health is a big issue for this team going forward. Not only was there legitimate and entirely warranted debate prior to his injury over whether or not he was the best player in (all of) hockey, his presence in the lineup has been a massive boost since his return. Most would argue that he has been so good we can put together the vast majority of concern about his health.

Last season, like Karlsson, New Jersey's Travis Zajac attempted a speedy recovery from a torn Achilles but had to sit out after a handful of games because he simply didn't feel well when playing. Karlsson, however, has looked anything but off. He is already averaging big minutes and making the plays he made prior to the injury. He may not have the top gear he did prior to the surgery, but that will come as he continues to get stronger. It should also be noted that Zajac is five years older than Karlsson and that age difference can be a substantial factor when it comes to adequate recovery time.

If we need further visual proof, even a simple play such as this shot on goal shows Karlsson looks just about right after the injury.

He makes himself available in space, leads the rush and gets a shot on goal. His ability to drive play towards the opposing net is his primary asset and it doesn't appear to have diminished at all. Karlsson has appeared in three games, been named to the Three Stars each game and has had a nice break between games after the finale in Boston.

The Sens, their fans and general observers should proceed under the belief that he'll be just fine come game one.

2. How much does Daniel Alfredsson have left?

No player has meant more to the Senators franchise than its longtime captain. Alfredsson had a bounce-back season in 2011-12 but has been among the numerous Ottawa players who've struggled to score this season. Alfredsson missed one game and averaged more than 19 minutes a night, but he's not the offensive threat he used to be. With goals likely to be scarce, a big playoff run from Alfredsson is a must for success.

The answer to this question has to simply be: enough. It's no secret that at 40 years old the Sens aren't going to get another 10 years of Alfredsson, no matter how much they may like that. But, for anyone who has followed the Sens this year, it is clear that the man can still play hockey.

His ability to handle the puck has been an asset at both ends of the ice and his offensive creativity was a boost for a team that struggled to score. His 26 points in 47 games is a 45 point season over 82 games — a completely respectable mark when one considers the goal scoring struggles of this team as a whole.

Alfredsson has also played a big role in the team’s defensive system, averaging just under two minutes a night on the PK. He has also consistently been taking shifts against the top offensive players in the conference at even strength.

Case in point...

When you take this into consideration and note that the Sens gave up the second fewest amount of goals in the league this season it’s an impressive feat for any player, let alone one with so many kilometres on the engine. Over the course of a grueling schedule he has managed to play big minutes, help shut down top scorers and maintain a very respectable production rate.

Defensive play is the driving force behind this Senators system and Alfredsson has been a key part of its success. If and when the goal scoring turns around, he will be a big factor on the scoresheet as well.

For reference: he has 105 points in 89 games against Montreal and has a pair of goals in four games against the Habs this season.

3. Is Craig Anderson as good as his numbers?

The stats say Anderson has been the NHL's leader in goals-against average and save percentage for much of the season, despite a high ankle sprain that cost him a third of the season. But the only number that counts in the playoffs is victories. Anderson played well in the first round against the favored New York Rangers last spring but couldn't close out the series after Ottawa took a 3-2 lead. If the Senators get the same chance this year, he has to find a way to get that fourth win.

Anderson’s numbers were almost certainly aided by the number of games he played in an already shortened season, but his play has been a byproduct of a defensive minded system as a whole.

When the Sens are playing well, the majority of shots their goaltenders are forced to face allow them to get set and squared to the shooter with defenders looking to clear the opportunity for second chances and get the puck back up ice. His ability to stop those first chances has been excellent and, by extension, the defensive ability to get on the counter attack has also been excellent.

As far as Anderson himself, he has been very relaxed and quiet in goal all season long. The need to make highlight reel desperation saves has been rare due to excellent positioning and ability to read the play. It goes without saying that he’ll need help from his defence over the course of a playoff series, but if they continue to limit second and third opportunities around the crease, it’s rare that you’ll see a shooter flat out beat Anderson in goal.

In two career trips to the playoffs, both with heavy underdogs in the 2010 Avs and 2012 Senators, Anderson has a .933 save percentage over 14 games. If the Senators can provide him with some run support, he ought to be able to give them the goaltending necessary to win games.

4. How will the kids do under pressure?

One big reason the Senators are still playing is the performance of their young players. All the injuries led to 13 rookies seeing playing time. Mika Zibanejad, Jakob Silfverberg, Patrick Wiercioch and Eric Gryba stepped in and played well. But it's one thing to play well in the regular season and quite another to do it under the glare of the playoffs. Ottawa needs to avoid the nerves that can paralyze young players in the postseason.

Any time you have a flood of young players into a lineup there is always concern for how they will fare when the stage is elevated and the lights are a bit brighter. The Sens will have roughly half a dozen players making their NHL playoff debut come Thursday night and we will have a better idea after the puck drops.

With this in mind, however, one thing the Sens have done well with is finding players that have won games at every level. The aforementioned players in the above blurb are all great examples of that. Zibanejad scored Sweden’s now-famous overtime winner at the World Juniors, Jakob Silfverberg was the SEL’s playoff MVP last season (and played with the Sens during the playoffs last year), Wiercioch and Gryba are both Calder Cup champions as part of the Baby Sens.

While these experiences aren’t quite equivalent to the amplified intensity of the NHL playoffs, they are indicative of a culture of winning the franchise is trying to create within its development system. There is value in having players who have won on lower levels. The magnitude of the victories may not be the same, objectively speaking, but the feeling of finding a way to get the job done when you’re up against it stays with you.

Those moments have helped these younger players during the push to clinch a playoff spot this season and it will help them come game one, even if there is a learning curve they have yet to experience.

5. Can the Senators control the tempo?

Ottawa wants no part of a run-and-gun game. MacLean has his team playing a patient style that can drive opponents crazy. More than half of the Senators' games were decided by one goal. MacLean would likely be happy with a game played along the walls and in the neutral zone, rather than seeing his team trade chances with the opposition. That means good puck management and limiting turnovers will be mandatory for Ottawa to have sustained success.

This really is the crux of the series here. Both of these teams thrive when they play ‘fast’ and both generate a lot towards opposing goaltenders. In order for one to impose their will on the other, possession of the puck will be necessary.

The Sens obviously don’t want a track meet despite their desire to play with speed. Constantly going end-to-end leads to breakdowns in systems and mental errors. As a squad that has had so much success because of their ability to stick to their system, they want to play as fast as possible without losing form.

Some will go back and look at games the Sens and Habs have played earlier this season and note that the Habs dominated puck possessions over stretches of those games. They are absolutely correct. However, this Sens team with Milan Michalek, Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen back is a completely different matchup. They are three of Ottawa’s best possession players and should help balance the scales back to even at minimum.

There is no denying the Sens, despite mixed results in their final week of the season, were a borderline dominant team when it came to playing with the puck. While they didn’t always get the results on the scoresheet to prove it, any time you’re outshooting opponents by close to 2:1 margins, you’re driving the proverbial car.

If they can find a way to take that consistency and bring it to this series, they will be a very tough out for Montreal who are very good possession drivers in their own right. This crucial part of the game is why we could have a very long, exciting series ahead of us.

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