It’s time to look at five big questions facing the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Final. The series starts Saturday in Pittsburgh.
1. Can Erik Karlsson continue to carry the Senators?
Without Karlsson, the Senators would not be in this position. His 13 points lead playoff defensemen and his 11 assists rank second in the league. Karlsson has also averaged 28:56 of ice-time per-game, which leads all players this postseason.
He holds a plus-11.70 CF% overall, which is impressive considering the Senators have utilized him equally in offensive and defensive situations. Karlsson is also playing on a fractured foot.
It just feels like the Senators need someone else to step up more consistently to give them a shot at the powerful Penguins. Bobby Ryan and Derick Brassard have shown flashes with nine points each in 12 game. Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s seven goals have provided an unexpected boost.
If they again rely too much on Karlsson then it’s hard to imagine they’ll beat Pittsburgh.
2. Can Marc-Andre Fleury continue his current pace?
Fleury’s consistency and bounce-back ability have been a huge reason why the Penguins are in the Eastern Conference Final.
Up until Games 5 and 6 of the second-round he was on his game, and then struggled allowing nine goals in the two contests. He then shut out the Washington Capitals in Game 7 with a sterling 29-save performance.
Fleury’s play has been one of the top storylines of the playoffs after his past struggles in previous postseasons. He currently has a 2.55 goal-against average and .927 save percentage this playoff but an overall 3.02 goal-against average and .909 save percentage in his playoff career.
No matter how well he has played this year, there’s always this sense of dread that follows Fleury around. If he falters, the Penguins do have Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray as a backup, which is a plus. But goaltending drama is something no team wants this time of year.
3. Can the Senators start quicker?
The Senators are a pedestrian 3-2 when they score the first goal in the playoffs. When their opponents score first Ottawa holds a 5-2 record.
When the Penguins score first they hold a 7-1 record. Overall, Pittsburgh doesn’t seem like the type of team that will let Ottawa hang around to give them a shot at a comeback like the Boston Bruins or New York Rangers did in prior series.
The Senators simply need to play from ahead this series, rather than play from behind.
4. Can Evgeni Malkin be stopped?
This postseason, as the Penguins have dealt with concussion drama around Sidney Crosby and injuries up and down the lineup, Evgeni Malkin has stepped up his game in a major way.
He leads the NHL with 18 points in 12 games and holds a plus-7.63 adjusted 5-on-5 CF%. Crosby, by comparison, has a plus-1.28 5-on-5 CF%, meaning Malkin has generated better puck possession numbers than Crosby. After Crosby’s concussion in Game 3, Malkin led the charge in a comeback that got the game to overtime with a goal and an assist.
When Malkin is playing with something to prove, he’s a nightmare match-up for any team. The Senators’ defense is so banged up that it’s hard to see them being able to slow down a determined Malkin in this series.
5. Can the Penguins’ defense hold?
The Penguins are also banged up on defense. They’ve gotten this far without Kris Letang, who has been out since February because of a neck injury and won’t play this postseason.
Blue liner Trevor Daley is day-to-day and missed Pittsburgh’s Game 7 win over the Capitals. Pittsburgh’s first pairing is currently Justin Schultz and Ian Cole, guys who are solid but not exactly No. 1 or No. 2 defensemen.
This is certainly an area where the Senators can take advantage. Though Karlsson is the Senators main offensive weapon, they still have some solid players at forward who must attack the Penguins’ defense. Mike Hoffman scored 26 goals last season and Kyle Turris scored 27. Mark Stone fired 22 goals.
The Penguins defense has held up nicely so far on this run but they’re certainly the most exploitable part of that team.
– – – – – – –
MORE FROM YAHOO SPORTS