Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Ottawa Senators v Pittsburgh Penguins

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Why you have to watch: The Penguins, who won the Stanley Cup last year, have kept their hopes of repeating alive by slaying two of the best teams in the NHL in the first two rounds. But they enter the Eastern Conference finals beat up and held together more by sheer will and determination than anything else. … The Senators clearly have something special going this spring, thanks to their fiery coach, inspirational goalie and a trap that has successfully frustrated nearly every team they’ve played. … The series features the best player on Earth (Sidney Crosby) and the best defenseman on Earth (Erik Karlsson). That alone makes it must-watch. … Karlsson has been terrific this postseason, and conference finals stage should give the Swede even more of an opportunity to shine. He has 13 points in 12 playoff games, while playing nearly 29 minutes per game. No other defenseman has reached double digits in playoff points.

Head to head: The Senators won two of three against the Penguins this year, though the Penguins had a healthy shot margin in those games (111-97) and the Senators scored only one more goal than the Penguins in their season series (11-10) … They played a wild game in December in which the Penguins spotted the Senators a 4-2 lead and then scored six goals in the next 32 minutes for the comeback win. … The Penguins had a hard time containing Erik Karlsson during the regular season. He registered seven points in three games against Pittsburgh, though he was a minus-1. … Ottawa’s power play gave the Penguins trouble during the regular season, going 6-for-12 against them.

Injury fallout: Karlsson revealed after the first round that he was playing with two hairline fractures in his foot, but it has hardly slowed him down. He’s simply a freak of nature. … Senators forward Viktor Stalberg suffered an undisclosed injury in Game 6 against the Rangers and played less than seven minutes. … Ottawa defenseman Mark Borowiecki has been ruled out for the start of the conference finals. He was injured in the first-round series against the Boston Bruins. … The Penguins are still without Kris Letang, who underwent neck surgery last month, and his absence was felt at times against the Washington Capitals in the conference semifinals. … Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley is day-to-day with a lower-body injury, which he suffered against the Capitals. … Pittsburgh forward Carl Hagelin missed Game 7 against the Capitals and hasn’t been himself since returning to the lineup after suffering a lower-body injury in March.

Goalie advantage: Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was sensational against the Capitals in Game 7, registering a shutout in the clincher. He finished that series with a .921 save percentage, outplaying Washington netminder Braden Holtby for most of it. Fleury’s experience and performance this spring give him an edge over Senators goalie Craig Anderson. … Fleury, who stepped in for Matt Murray when the Penguins’ starter was injured during warmups before the first game of the playoffs, has a .927 save percentage overall this postseason. … Murray is now healthy enough to back up Fleury, and it will be interesting to see how short the leash is on Fleury if things start to go sideways for the Pens. … Anderson recovered from a rough patch in the middle of the series against the Rangers to stop 37 of 39 shots in the clincher. He finished with a .907 save percentage last round.

Coaching advantage: For the second consecutive postseason, coach Mike Sullivan has expertly navigated his way through every hurdle thrown the Penguins’ way. The adjustments he made against the Capitals in time for Game 7 are part of the reason Pittsburgh prevailed. … Sullivan has emerged as one of the game’s best tacticians and has also been a steadying presence behind the bench for the Penguins, setting an example of steely resolve. … Senators coach Guy Boucher deserves a ton of credit for getting a complete buy-in from his group this year and for helping round out Karlsson’s game. Boucher’s 1-3-1 trap is a big reason the Senators are where they are. But we give the edge to Sullivan because he has the ring.

Prediction: The Senators are a great story and Karlsson is a superstar. But, even though they’re banged up, the Penguins’ championship pedigree, star power and captain give them the edge.

Courtesy of Craig Custance
ESPN Senior Writer

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