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Eastern Conference Preview: (1) Pittsburgh vs. (7) Ottawa

By Adam Gretz | Hockey writer

Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins have a lot of playoff history against the Ottawa Senators. (USATSI)
Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins have a lot of playoff history against the Ottawa Senators. (USATSI)

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The good news for the Pittsburgh Penguins is that they managed to advance to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs despite not playing their best hockey against the New York Islanders.

The bad news is another effort like that in the second round against the Ottawa Senators might knock them out of the playoffs.

They have to be better. A lot better.

While the Senators won't present the same sort of speed mismatch the Islanders did, or have the same type of goal-scoring ability, they also come into the series with a goaltender that probably isn't going to fall flat on his face like Evgeni Nabokov did for New York.

Ottawa advanced after dispatching the No. 2 seed Canadiens in five games in a series that was probably much closer than the final result would indicate. The Senators spent a lot of time holding off the Canadiens defensively but moved on for one big reason: Their goalie (Craig Anderson) was very good, and Montreal's goalies (Carey Price and Peter Budaj) were very bad.

This is the third time these two teams have met in the playoffs since 2006, and it should be a pretty good series. The only downside is there is sure to be way too much attention -- at least in the early going -- given to the played out storyline involving Matt Cooke and Erik Karlsson and the incident that resulted in Karlsson suffering a lacerated Achilles (and the fallout it produced) back in February.

Neither player has any interest in revisiting it as the series approaches, nor should they.

If you weren't tired of that story by now, you probably will be by the time the series ends.

Pittsburgh forwards vs. Ottawa defense

The Senators allowed the second-fewest goals in the NHL during the regular season, a stat that could lead to the assumption they are a strong defensive team.

I'm not entirely sure that's the case.

While the Senators were one of the toughest teams in the NHL to score against this season, they were one of the worst teams in the league when it came to preventing shots on goal and a lot of their success defensively seemed to come from the ability of their trio of goaltenders (Craig Anderson, Robin Lehner, and Ben Bishop before he was traded to Tampa Bay) to stand tall in net and put the team on their backs.

A lot of what is perceived to be good defense in Ottawa is actually great goaltending.

Look at it this way: If the Senators have given up the same number of shots this season and simply received league average goaltending they would have given up 30 additional goals, a number that would have pushed them from No. 2 in the NHL in goals against all the way down to 17th.

They still have a Norris Trophy winner in Erik Karlsson on their blue line, and while he's clearly not 100 percent after returning from a lacerated Achilles he's still a difference-maker when he's on the ice.

But when it comes to their defense, that's pretty much it.

Even with an impact player like Karlsson the Penguins should still have an advantage in this matchup. That's probably not entirely fair to Ottawa's defense, because Pittsburgh's group of forwards would have an advantage against just about any defense in the league.

Ottawa forwards vs. Pittsburgh defense

Pittsburgh's defensive effort in Round 1 against the New York Islanders was not a good one by any stretch of the imagination.

It was made worse by some poor goaltending early in the series, but the Penguins have to be better defensively if they're going to continue moving through the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Senators don't have the same sort of speed up front that the Islanders did, and they don't really have a lot of great finishers when it comes to scoring goals (they were 28th in the NHL this year in goals scored) but no team in the NHL generated more shots on goal than Ottawa. Going up against a Pittsburgh defense that's been bleeding shots against as the season has progressed that could present an interesting challenge for whichever goalie the Penguins decide to put in net.

A lot of shots against is nothing new for the Penguins lately as their shot totals have been trending in opposite directions for more than a month now. The table below shows the Penguins cumulative shot attempts for and against for the 2013 season, and as you can see those are two numbers going in the wrong direction.

Goaltending

The Penguins won't announce who their starting goalie is before the series begins, but they would be crazy to take Tomas Vokoun out of the lineup after the way he played in Games 5 and 6 (not to mention the way Marc-Andre Fleury played in Games 1-4 ... or in his previous three postseason appearances).

Vokoun is more than capable of handling the starting duties, and this is why the Penguins brought him in. To serve as a Plan B in the event that Fleury struggled again.

That said, goaltending has been the strength of Ottawa's team this season and is the biggest reason the Senators were able to overcome so many significant injuries (Jason Spezza, Karlsson, Milan Michalek) over the course of the season. No team had a higher save percentage than Ottawa's .933, while the No. 2 team in the NHL was at .922.

Special teams

Pittsburgh has one of the best power plays in the NHL while Ottawa has one of the best penalty kills. But when it comes to Ottawa's PK a lot of it again comes back to how much of it is defense, and how much of it is goaltending. The Senators PK gives up more shots than the average NHL unit but receive goaltending that is far better than the league average. They're doing their part to prove the "goaltender is your best penalty killer" cliche. That said, you have to think that if Pittsburgh gets enough power-play opportunities they're going to get their chances and maybe slip a few in.

On the other side, if Pittsburgh's power play and Ottawa's penalty kill is strength against strength, Ottawa's power play and Pittsburgh's penalty kill have to be weakness against weakness. Neither group has been particularly good this season.

Prediction

Penguins in 7.

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