The Ottawa Senators' Mark Borowiecki tries slow down the Pittsburgh Penguins' Patric Hörnqvist during a game at the Canadian Tire Centre in January 2017. TONY CALDWELL / POSTMEDIA NETWORK
“C” Stands For Conn: While the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby and the Sens’ Erik Karlsson both wear the stitched C on their jerseys as the captains of their respective teams, keep in mind that Crosby won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP a year ago while Karlsson is considered by many to be the frontrunner through the first two rounds this time around. Two of the top five players on the planet.
Sinister Sid?: Sid the Kid certainly will occupy the role as villain among Senators fans after his slash on Marc Methot left the finger of the Ottawa defenceman dangling and bloodied in a March 23 game at the Canadian Tire Centre. Both Crosby and Karlsson said there was no intent on the play; rabid Sens backers aren’t so sure. Methot fortunately has returned to play 11 games in this postseason.
Repeat Offenders?: The Penguins are eight victories away from becoming the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings.
Do You Be-Leaf?: When Brendan Shanahan took over as Maple Leafs president, two of the most prominent victims of his subsequent housecleaning were Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, who both ended up being traded. Now the Pens’ Kessel and the Sens’ Phaneuf find themselves facing each other in the Eastern Conference final. What a difference a couple of years make.
Head To Head
Forwards: The Sens have been getting contributions from all over the lineup, with Mark Stone starting to heat up, Bobby Ryan rediscovering his scoring touch and Jean-Gabriel Pageau torching the Rangers for four goals in Ottawa’s dramatic overtime win in Game 2 of the second round series versus New York. But when it comes to difference makers, we can’t go against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.
Defence: If Kris Letang was healthy, this might be a different story. But the way he is playing right now, Karlsson is the best defenceman on the planet and can almost singlehandedly lead his team past a playoff opponent. Just ask the Rangers.
Goal: Craig Anderson spent much of the regular season understandably concentrating on his wife’s battle with cancer, while Marc-Andre Fleury found himself often sitting on the bench behind Matt Murray. Come playoff time, however, both have overcome their personal adversities and been outstanding.
Special Teams: Sens PP (14.6%), PK (87.5%); Pens PP (21.6%), PK (87.5%).
Sens penalty killing percentage was helped out by a brutal Rangers power play. Karlsson is the ultimate power play quarterback, but the Pens man advantage can be lethal whenever you can put Crosby, Malkin and Kessel on the ice together.
Edge: Slight one to Pens.
Coaching: Guy Boucher has gone 4-1 in five NHL post-season series during his NHL coaching career, accruing an impressive won-lost record of 19-11 in the process. Through it all, he has brought defence back to Ottawa. As for Mike Sullivan, he brought the Cup back to Pittsburgh last spring. For that, he gets the nod.
Edge: Slight one to Pens.
Intangibles: Yes, the Pens are defending champs. But think what the Sens have overcome to get here. Anderson and his wife’s valiant fight, one that has made the Sens goalie a finalist for the Masterton trophy. Former GM Bryan Murray’s battle against cancer. Clarke MacArthur’s inspiring return after missing almost two full seasons with concussions
Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Sens
Jake Guentzel, Penguins
Key Matchup: Sidney Crosby vs. Erik Karlsson
What else would it be? Count on these two seeing a lot of each other on a game-to-game, period-to-period, shift-to-shift basis. In Karlsson’s case, he’s become a much more complete defenceman under Boucher’s tutelage. His foot injury should be a concern, although it doesn’t seem to be. Here are some numbers backing up Karlsson’s value to the Sens in these playoffs: With him on the ice in 5-on-5 situations, the Senators have outscored opponents, 14-7. While on the bench, they’ve been outscored, 18-9. That’s a 16-goal swing.
Penguins Win If: Crosby plays like Crosby, Fleury plays like he has in the previous two rounds and the Penguins play like the team that grinded its way to the Cup a year ago. On paper, they are the more talented team. But games aren’t played on paper.
Senators Win If: They exploit the Penguins weaknesses. This is a Pittsburgh team that is more vulnerable than the one that beat the San Jose Sharks for the title 11 months ago. With Kris Letang out, there is only one legitimate No. 1 defenceman in this series – and it’s Ottawa’s Karlsson. Keep this stat in mind too: in beating the Capitals in seven games, the Pens were outshot in 17 of 22 periods.