When Ottawa Senators coach Guy Boucher was asked following his team’s victory over the New York Rangers Tuesday night whether or not his team would be the underdog next round, he laughed and said something along the lines of “do I really have to answer that?”
Boucher knows, as just about everyone else does, that whoever comes of tonight’s Game 7 showdown between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, that team will be the overwhelming favourite to advance to the Stanley Cup final. It’s very much a pick your poison situation for the Senators.
Now, although most are assuming said winner will have an easy path to the final, Ottawa has shown time and again the ability to surprise.
It was assumed they’d be, at best, a bubble playoff team, yet they finished second in their division. It was assumed that they’d get run over by the best analytics team in the league, the Boston Bruins (despite the fact the Bruins were operating basically without a defence corps), yet they managed to get through. It was further assumed that there was little chance they’d defeat the fast, healthy Rangers, yet here we are: Round 3.
Ottawa will, and should be, considered the underdog, but I believe if they’re going to get through, they should be keeping their fingers crossed for a Pittsburgh Penguins win tonight. The obvious reasons are that the Caps are the better 5-on-5 FF% team and an overwhelmingly better goal differential team.
But all long playoff runs require a big dollop of luck, and the Senators’ path is no different. In the first two rounds, they faced teams that had injury problems and/or had goaltenders having uncharacteristically bad years. In addition to the Bruins’ aforementioned D problems, Tuukka Rask has looked decidedly less Rask-like of late, posting a .915 save percentage for the second straight season after being closer to .930 for much of the previous six seasons.
The Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist was far worse, posting a .910 over the year before actually playing really well against the Senators. If we’re looking at the big picture, we expect to see some variance, and Lundqvist was probably due to get those numbers up a bit, but overall, we’re looking to face bad goalies who might get lucky or see a bump rather than good goalies.
Which brings us back to the Penguins, who’ve been forced to go with Marc-Andre Fleury due to an injury to Matt Murray. Not only did Fleury post a putrid .909 this season (after losing his starting job to Murray last season), he’s a career .912, which just isn’t good enough for an NHL starter anymore. Fleury has played well so far these playoffs, but again, big picture, this is the goalie you want to see in the third round – not Washington’s Braden Holtby, who, despite seeing some hiccups these playoffs, is a Vezina finalist this season and might be the best netminder in the world at the moment. Against Pittsburgh, the Senators have a huge goaltending advantage.
That oddsmakers have the Capitals as -180 favourites tonight against the defending Stanley Cup champs should tell you something too.
Ottawa is in tough no matter who wins tonight, but fans hoping to see their team head back to the final for the first time in a decade should be cheering for the Pens.