NHL Playoffs: Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators Driven by Offensive Defensemen

Letang and Karlsson key reunion of familiar adversaries
By Joe Pack, Contributor
May 14, 2013 Updated: May 14, 2013

For a series that will boast last season’s Norris Trophy winner and one of this season’s nominees, very few should expect to see defense come first.

Neither the Pittsburgh Penguins nor the Ottawa Senators had trouble scoring goals this postseason, dispatching their opponents in six and five games respectively.

Now, in their fourth meeting in seven years, the details of their history come into focus both on the ice and off of it. The Penguins have won two of the three previous matchups, with the last one coming in 2010.

Coaches Dan Bylsma and Paul MacLean have coached against one another before when MacLean was an assistant coach on the 2009 Detroit Red Wings that lost to Bylsma’s Penguins in the final. Each will play an opportunistic brand of hockey stemming from creative defenders who initiate offence.

The Penguins had some success against goaltender Craig Anderson this year, scoring eight goals in three games against Ottawa. But the riddle resides between the pipes for Pittsburgh as both netminders have recorded playoff shutouts with No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury relinquishing his starting position to veteran Tomas Vokoun after a disastrous performance in Game 4 against the Islanders.

Look for a fast Senators team to patiently pursue an accident-prone defensive squad in the Penguins in order to expose an otherwise stacked hockey team.

Soap Opera

Owners Mario Lemieux and Eugene Melnyk have been known to make headlines with the latter recently vilifying Penguins forward Matt Cooke and casting a bizarre shadow over the hotly contested series—one where the team favored has both arguably the two best players in the world and a goaltending controversy.

Of all members of the Penguins organization, Bylsma might have been under the most fire if they lost to an eighth seed in the New York Islanders.

“Show me a good goalie and I’ll show you a good coach” is the saying, and Bylsma owed the Game 1 start to his elder goaltender. Vokoun can be quite conservative and economical in movement, making safe plays (save the stick-handling gaffe in Game 6 of the Islanders series) and swallowing rebounds.

Balance is what this team needed from its goalie and they will play on a knife’s edge until they arrive where they expect to: the Stanley Cup final.

A second round loss for Bylsma and the Penguins? Unthinkable. Yet the mere appearance of the Senators in Round 2 is a testament to Paul MacLean. The tête-à-tête between these two can become a factor in this series as it did for MacLean and Michel Therrien in the Montreal/Ottawa tilt.

MacLean and the Senators have nothing to lose and the worst thing Bylsma could do is get in to a war of words with the underdog. And the conversation may veer towards Matt Cooke and the Erik Karlsson Achilles tendon controversy, a silly soap opera, but one that Bylsma could potentially exacerbate by not down-playing it.

To quickly summarize this conflict, Cooke seemed to accidentally cut Karlsson’s Achilles tendon with the blade of his skate early in the season, robbing the Senators of their best player for most of the year. Senators owner Eugene Melnyk later vowed to further investigate the incident, at one point using the term “forensics” which caused “#CSIOttawa” to trend on Twitter.

Cooke was not given any discipline for the incident. But this circus sideshow could be an unwanted distraction and whichever team best uses it or avoids it may be better for it. MacLean out-dueled and out-classed Therrien in Round 1, winning the war of words by not getting overly emotional. Stoicism is a strength of Bylsma’s but his job is still at risk if the Pens exit in this round.

Both teams are facing very different opponents this time around. The Senators played a much smaller, less battle-tested team in Montreal. Penguins like defensemen Douglas Murray and Brooks Orpik will bring a more intimidating style of play that could wear on a young, speed-driven Ottawa group.

And Brenden Morrow, largely a non-factor in the first round, will look to impose his physical play and robust style upon the Ottawa forwards.

The aforementioned best players in the world, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, will now face a goaltender in Craig Anderson who, if not for injuries, would likely have won the Vezina Trophy this season. The Pens found a way during the regular season but must find another gear if they hope to win this series’ scoring-race.

Malkin, Crosby, and Jarome Iginla all appear in the top-six in playoff scoring, but cannot expect to tap in many easy ones as Islanders netminder Evgeni Nabokov was prone to allowing.

Defencemen Kris Letang of Pittsburgh and Karlsson in Ottawa should be able to spark much of the offense in this series, though Letang has more help in front of him.

The Senators have seemed to thrive under adversity, however, finding different ways to win under a system employed by both the Senators and their AHL affiliate, Binghamton. Karlsson is tied for the team lead in points with captain Daniel Alfredsson at six.

With the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers set to commence a defensive duels to end all defensive duels, look to this series to provide a faster-paced game with unpredictable results.

There is a clear underdog here, but Ottawa with a healthy Karlsson and Anderson proved they are stronger than a No. 7 seed. Ottawa may be the most dangerous team remaining in the East, especially since all of the pressure resides on the shoulders of Pittsburgh.

Defense wins championships. And sometimes the best defense is a good offence.

Joe Pack has written for TheHockeyWriters.com, is a member of the Society for International Hockey Research and has his own blog at www.upperbodyinquiry.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoePack

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