Erik Karlsson

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Penguins redefining defense by committee

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins lost defenseman Kris Letang for the entire postseason it was thought be a crushing blow to their chances to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. Especially with a path that was likely to include two of the NHL’s best teams in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Not only is Letang one of the best defensemen in the world, he is one of the most important cogs in the Penguins’ machine. During last year’s Stanley Cup run he played close to 29 minutes per game and did so at an incredibly high level. Losing that sort of workhorse is nearly impossible to replace.

But even with Letang’s absence (and even additional injuries to defensemen Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz) the Penguins find themselves one win away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final without really having a true No. 1 defenseman to turn to.

This is almost unheard of in today’s NHL.

Every team that goes on a deep run in the playoffs has a minute-eating defenseman that can be counted on to play a significant portion of the game. Letang. Drew Doughty. Duncan Keith. Erik Karlsson. Zdeno Chara. Players like that.

When it comes to the playoffs, teams tend to roll with their top-four defensemen the most and do their best to hide or shelter their third pairing by limiting their minutes as much as they can. The Penguins have not had that luxury without Letang.

That means everybody has had to step up and take on an expanded role. Just about everybody is playing more than they are used to while there is virtually no difference between each role.

First, consider that every team (22 of them) that has reached the Stanley Cup Final since the 2005-06 season has had at least one defensemen average more than 22 minutes of ice-time per game. Twenty-one of those 22 teams have had at least two players log more than 22 minutes, while 18 of them have had at least one player average more than 25 minutes of ice-time per game.

The 2016-17 Penguins currently have none.

Brian Dumoulin is currently their ice-time leader, playing just over 21 minutes per game.

Let’s take a look at what that looks like from a usage perspective.

The table here looks at this year’s Penguins, the remaining final four teams this season, and every Stanley Cup Finalist dating back to 2011-12 and what percentage of a 60-minute game each of their top-six defensemen played on an average night. This year’s Penguins should stick out as a massive outlier.

 

Other than the 2014-15 Lightning and 2011-12 Devils every other team on here had a No. 1 defenseman that was on the ice for more than 40 percent of the game on a given night. And the Lightning and Devils were very close to it.

All of them had a No. 2 defenseman that played more than 36 percent of the game on a given night.

Again, the Penguins currently have nobody taking on that sort of a workload in either spot.

Every team on there was able to limit their playing time of their third pairing (some more than others) while there was a significant gap between the ice-time for their No. 1 and No. 6 defenseman.

For Pittsburgh, their third pairing plays almost as much as their second pairing, while there is minimal difference between the workload for their top pairing and their third pairing. Last year, as an example, Letang averaged more than 13 additional minutes per game than their No. 6 defenseman.

This year Dumoulin is only averaging three more minutes than their No. 6.

It really is a defense by committee approach and it has been kind of fascinating to watch.

They are clearly lacking the elite puck-moving presence that a player like Letang can provide, and at times their ability to smoothly and efficiently exit the defensive zone has been a struggle.

It is also a situation where a lot of players are being thrust into roles they are not used to playing.  This has at times led to extended zone time for their opponents and put them in a situation where they are giving up way more shots per game than they want. They are also fortunate to have two outstanding goalies in Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury that have been fantastic this postseason to keep pucks out of the net. But overall it is a unit that has seemingly taken on a whatever it takes approach to get the job done.

It runs counter to everything we have seen from contending teams in recent years when it comes to the makeup of a defense, but they have somehow found a way to make this patchwork unit work. Now here they are, just one win away from getting back to the Stanley Cup Final.

Karlsson, Brassard and Ceci all good to go in Game 6 for Senators

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Trailing by five goals entering the third period on Sunday evening, Ottawa Senators coach Guy Boucher decided he was going to shorten his bench and protect some of his most important players from further injury. So defensemen Erik Karlsson and Cody Ceci, as well as forward Derick Brassard, were given the entire third period off (after the game Karlsson said he could have played if needed).

On Monday, Boucher confirmed that all three players will be ready to go for Tuesday’s Game 6 with the Senators facing elimination in the Eastern Conference Final.

Karlsson was playing through a fractured foot earlier this postseason and appeared to be shaken up late in the second period on Sunday when he awkwardly fell to the ice during a tie up along the boards. Brassard was shaken up following a hit coming through the neutral zone from Penguins forward Chris Kunitz.

Boucher also added that defenseman Mark Borowiecki, who has not played since Game 2 of their first-round series against the Boston Bruins, is “possible” to play on Tuesday while forward Alex Burrows is not as likely to play.

Before Game 5 Boucher said that Borowiecki was getting close to a return but was not quite ready yet on Sunday. He talked about what he could potentially bring to the lineup when he does get back.

“I mean, he’s the number one hitter in the League. He’s a heat-seeking missile, that’s what he is,” Boucher said. “So, you know, it usually puts the opponents on their heels. It’s better for the tough players to get some ice around him. He’s one of those guys that creates fear in the opponent. That’s what he did all year. I mean, we’re missing it, but at the same time we’re getting something else from other players.”

Sunday’s game, a 7-0 loss, was easily the Senators’ worst one of the postseason and on Monday Boucher seemed to attribute it to his team getting too excited and getting away from its game.

“We have to play to our strengths,” said Boucher on Monday. “Last game we tried to play run and gun with the best offensive team and we got slapped.”

Following the game on Sunday Boucher was asked if that type of game can leave a mark, a question that Boucher dismissed by citing the Senators’ blowout win over Pittsburgh in Game 3 and his team’s ability to rebound from tough losses earlier this postseason.

“Did it leave a mark on Pittsburgh when we did that to them at home? They won the next game,” said Boucher on Sunday. “In the playoffs, just like the season, your ability to rebound from a great game or a really bad game is necessary. We’ve done it all year. We’ve done it in the playoffs. After the fourth game against the Rangers, we were supposedly done, so, rebound, get ready for the next one.”

Game 6 is Tuesday night in Ottawa at 8 p.m. ET.

 

Senators pulled Erik Karlsson to save him for Game 6

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PITTSBURGH — Not only were the Ottawa Senators on the wrong end of a 7-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday afternoon, but they gave their fans a little bit of an additional scare when superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson did not play the final 25 minutes of the game.

It turns out, the Senators simply made the decision to rest their best player and not risk further injury in a game that was already well out of hand.

Karlsson has not quite been 100 percent this season and was playing with a fractured foot earlier in the playoffs.

Sunday’s decision to remove him from the game was similar to one the Senators made early in their second-round series against the New York Rangers.

“Everything is fine,” said Karlsson after the game when asked for an injury update.

“As you all know the score was not what we wanted. Not only with me, but we decided to shorten down the bench a bit and move on to the next game.”

Along with Karlsson, forward Derick Brassard and defenseman Cody Ceci also sat out the third period.

Boucher said all three players could have returned if needed, something that Karlsson also echoed after the game.

“Oh yeah, absolutely, that is not an issue,” said Karlsson. “Same as the Rangers series. Same mentality, same thing. Again I think we all just need to move on from this game pretty quick. Sometimes it’s wrong to say, but you would rather lose like this than an overtime or something like that. I don’t think we played the way we needed to to be in this game today, they certainly did. We know this is not acceptable and we have to move on.”

Karlsson has 15 points in 17 games for the Senators this postseason while playing more than 29 minutes per game. He has been arguably the best player in the entire league in the playoffs.

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Penguins send Senators to brink of elimination

Craig Anderson had a rough first period for the Senators

Penguins send Senators to brink of elimination after dominating Game 5

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The defending champions are one win away from once again reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

Despite numerous injury concerns, particularly on defense, the Pittsburgh Penguins came roaring out of the gate in the first period, scoring four times and chasing Craig Anderson from the Senators’ net, before cruising to a 7-0 victory on home ice.

A great start for Pittsburgh. A disastrous start for Ottawa.

The Penguins now lead the Eastern Conference Final 3-2, and they will have their first chance to eliminate the Senators on Tuesday in Ottawa.

For the second time in as many games, Olli Maatta got the Penguins on the board first. In the span of just over 10 minutes Sunday, the Penguins suddenly opened up a four-goal lead. This one was over quickly.

Sidney Crosby on the power play, Bryan Rust and Scott Wilson continued the onslaught. Anderson allowed four goals on 14 shots before giving way to Mike Condon to begin the second period.

It turned into a blowout from there.

Pittsburgh continued to add to their lead, and dominated puck possession and the shot clock against the listless Senators the rest of the way.

Adding further concern for the Senators will be the condition of captain Erik Karlsson. Having played through a foot injury in these playoffs, Karlsson left Game 5 after an awkward fall during the second period and didn’t return for the third period.

Senators power play suck in slump

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The Ottawa Senators are two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final for a lot of reasons.

For one, Erik Karlsson has turned in a Conn Smythe worthy performance on the blue line.

They have completely bought into Guy Boucher’s system and are frustrating opposing offenses.

Craig Anderson has been, for the most part, stellar as the last line of defense in goal.

One area that is not really responsible for their postseason success, however, has been the power play.

Entering Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh the Senators have converted on just 11.5 percent of their power play opportunities this postseason, the third worst mark among the 16 playoff teams.

But it’s actually been even worse than that since the start of the second round.

After going 5-for-23 in their first-round win over the Boston Bruins, the Senators have converted on just one of their 29 opportunities since then. They have not scored a power play goal since Game 1 of their second-round series against the New York Rangers and are currently riding an 0-for-25 drought.

Their 0-for-4 performance in Game 4 was not only a significant factor in their 3-2 loss, but it was a particularly ugly showing from the unit. Before that game Boucher seemed to feel the unit was getting the right looks and shots, but just was not able to score.

“I have to know what’s what and when it’s awful, it’s awful,” said Boucher, via NHL.com. “It hasn’t been awful. We have had all the puck possession and the looks that we wanted to, we just haven’t scored. In Game 4 we did not. That was not a good power-play day. We have to be better.”

When asked on Saturday why power plays tend to go dry in the playoffs, Boucher said “It’s a lot easier to destroy something than it is to build something,” speaking to the nature of teams to be extra-defensive in the playoffs.

Obviously it has not had too much of a negative impact on their ability to win this postseason, but given that 12 of their first 16 games have been decided a singe goal (including four of their six losses) an extra power play goal here and there would probably be welcomed.