Conference finals preview: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Ottawa Senators

Game 7s often reveal more about the teams than they do the individual players. The Penguins have faced elimination in two series in the Mike Sullivan era. Last year, the Penguins won 2-1 over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 7th game of the Eastern Conference finals, receiving two goals from Bryan Rust. This year, they defeated the Washington Capitals 2-0, with a goal from Rust and Patric Hornqvist. While the sample size is laughingly tiny, both games highlight two truths that are paramount to understanding Pittsburgh and what continues to propel them.

The first nugget of wisdom is don’t fall behind in a game against Pittsburgh, which sounds axiomatic, but the Penguins almost always seem to get stronger when they are ahead. Game 5 against Washington was the only time in the postseason when they lost a game they led in, surrendering a 1-0, then 2-1 advantage, and eventually conceding three unanswered goals in the third period. Mostly, when the Penguins draw first blood they only increase the margin.

Second, Penguins scoring can come from anywhere, so shutting down their stars is not enough. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been great this postseason, but in similar fashion to last season’s playoffs, the team’s success stems from every skater flourishing, ranging from the depth players to the most skilled.

The Capitals certainly presented a stiff test, but Pittsburgh’s passing, speed, and discipline in all facets are so pronounced it is astonishing. But what happened in Game 6 when the Penguins got thumped? And is that replicable for the Senators? Any success against the Penguins is derived from zone exits. Their opponent needs swift, crisp breakouts and, conversely, they need to make sure the Penguins stall on their attempt to exit their zone.

The Penguins’ forecheck gets neutralized if they can’t establish possession (both goals in Game 7 came off of a disconnect between a Capitals’ defenseman and his winger on the first pass), and the Pittsburgh rush game becomes stilted when they are forced to exit the zone on the third, fourth, or fifth attempt. Of course, the Penguins run a ferocious transition play from the reset, where a man in the neutral zone facilitates for a surging forward on a curl, but tight gaps can muffle those forays. Still, make the Penguins chase, make them work for possession and room – this team has accrued a lot of mileage over the last 23 months.

It might be really hard for the Senators to score in this series. Ottawa’s forwards are not going to be able to push back the Penguins’ defensemen on the rush like they did with the Rangers and Bruins. The halcyon days of easy entries and conferred time to distribute a pass to a trailing teammate are gone. And those seams that were available against the Rangers will disappear against Pittsburgh as well.

The Penguins box out and impede the passing and shooting lanes as well as any team I have ever seen, so Ottawa would be wise to shoot and pass more in stride, and when the puck is likely blocked, they need to win the race to the loose puck. Faster choices overall is the prescription. Get the puck below the goal line if the lanes are closed, a strategy the Capitals have had success with at times. Make the Penguins’ defensemen battle behind the net and try to bruise them. When opposing forwards hold onto the puck too long against the Penguins, they tend to get devoured, and those turnovers lead to high-caliber scoring chances the other way.

Also, the Senators need to simultaneously have their defensemen extremely active on the cycle and rush, just in the hope that more bodies make the gaps a little looser, while also being omnipresent on the back end. Frankly, the same goes for the Senators’ forwards; a conservative one-man forecheck, with the second and third man higher than Pittsburgh’s retrieval trio will wither and die. They need to gain inside position, and then drive the puck toward the paint. Below the circles, all passing lanes will be sealed around the slot and possibly even off-slot, so the Senators would be wise in this series to appropriate the blunt force and jam the Anaheim Ducks thrived on. However, when the Penguins escape that forecheck pressure, the Senators’ forwards need to be a strong presence in the transition defense.

When Washington simplified things and their decision-making was quicker, and decisiveness was evident in all three zones, chances were more frequent. In Game 6, they overmatched the Penguins in speed by winning races to the puck, and their passing was accurate and thoughtful. (The Penguins will step up and force turnovers on passes into areas, so connecting tape-to-tape on passes is crucial.) The Capitals also converted on power plays, and at even strength Andre Burakovsky thrived with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. And Marc-Andre Fleury broadcast his weakness. He got beaten high-glove side time after time.

There is one big challenge Ottawa could present for Pittsburgh. Senators coach Guy Boucher has installed a layered neutral-zone coverage that forces teams to dump and chase to avoid a costly turnover. The key for the Penguins is catching Ottawa outside that defensive posture. The Senators have several forwards who are menacing on the rush, and that quick-strike counterattack spurred them in earlier rounds. How much the Penguins choose to accede to the middle-zone gridlock and settle for controlling the territorial game will be something to watch.

Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson is a wunderkind, a transcendent luminary, but the rest of the Senators’ defensive group is highly suspect, so the Penguins are going to want to exert pressure on the forecheck and force them to defend at length. And yet, precipitating the transition game could be even more advantageous for the Penguins.

Therefore, Pittsburgh’s Brian Dumoulin and the gang should be chucking stretch passes to their forwards and looking to get behind the Ottawa defensemen. Even if they cannot catch the Senators’ defensemen snoozing, a vigorous transition defense will be demanded. Overall, the Penguins want to force the Senators’ blueliners to defend in space. The Penguins should have a significant advantage in all races to the puck and most one-on-one battles, so it makes sense to sometimes bypass fluent breakouts for area passes.

The tough thing with the Penguins is that they are so damn versatile. They can win a slog and they can win a track meet. But when the Penguins are grooving, they are playing fast. They pass quickly, they scoop up loose pucks faster than the enemy, and they dive into pockets to support with alacrity. Unfortunately, to beat them, you have to do that better than they do.

The Senators need both fast breakouts and to apply pressure on the Penguins’ theoretically exploitable defensemen. The Senators’ effectiveness is driven by forcing turnovers and striking off the counterattack, so when they get their few opportunities, they need to convert.

The Senators need to draw as many penalties as possible while committing only a few themselves, because they will not win this series at even strength. A scorching power play is their best chance of pulling the upset, while if the Penguins get several chances on the man-advantage, it could result in a scoring tsunami. It’s hard to see the Senators checking all of these boxes for two games, much less four.

Penguins in five

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