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Senators stress ‘pack mentality’ defense is key to slowing down Penguins

Not only did the Ottawa Senators win Saturday, taking a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Final, but they managed to hold both Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel off the score board.

Evgeni Malkin did manage to score late in the third period on a beautiful deflection in front of Craig Anderson, sending the game into overtime.

There was some luck involved for the Senators.

Armed with that scary wrist shot, Kessel rang a puck off the crossbar, and Anderson, the Senators goalie, made critical saves throughout the game.

The Senators did manage to keep Crosby to just two shots on goal — and two attempts — in just over 23 minutes of ice time. His most dangerous opportunity came in overtime, as Crosby sped up the ice and nearly split the Ottawa defense before losing control of the puck at the last second.

Senators coach Guy Boucher said Sunday that his team’s game plan in this series isn’t focused solely on Crosby. His reasoning? The Penguins simply have too many good forwards in their lineup, and planning around just one player would allow others an opportunity to take advantage.

The Penguins have the luxury of playing Crosby on their top line, and then having Malkin and Kessel on another line — presumably the second — in their lineup. In the words of Mike Sullivan from last year: “Pick your poison.”

“To be honest with you, we didn’t talk about Crosby once. We’ve always wanted our team to look at our defense — our defensive group playing not as a one-on-one but more as a pack mentality,” Boucher told reporters.

“It doesn’t matter who we play against or how good they are, we’re aware of their strengths. But if we pay special attention to Crosby, then Malkin’s going to give it to us. If we pay special attention to him, then Kessel’s going to give it to us. They’ve got too many tools and players for us to start focusing on particular guys or start worrying about them every time they’re on the ice. They’re always on the ice.”

On Sunday, Sullivan said that during the team’s film session, the Penguins’ coaching staff showed players instances where they had opportunities to shoot the puck but opted not to. That said, he later implored his team not to force something that may not be there. On that note, he said the focus should then shift to tiring out the Senators in their own end.

“They’re good in the neutral zone. I still feel like we had our chances. We hit a cross bar, had some chances around the net. It’s going to be tight. You’re going to get a handful of chances, and you’ve got to find ways to put them in,” said Crosby.

“But they’re a good defense team. They play well as a unit. We’ve got to make sure we find ways to create down low.”

Bobby Ryan finally ‘getting a reward’ after a difficult regular season

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After a difficult regular season that included injury, time as a healthy scratch and underwhelming offensive production, Bobby Ryan has emerged as a pivotal contributor to the Ottawa Senators during the playoffs.

In 13 post-season games, Ryan has five goals and 11 points. He had only 13 goals and 25 points during the regular season — with a $7.25 million cap hit. He’s in the second year of a pricey seven-year contract.

He was a dominant player for Ottawa in the first round, and on Saturday, he set up Jean-Gabriel Pageau for his opening goal and then scored the winner in overtime, giving the Sens a 1-0 series lead.

On the goal, Ryan chipped the puck out of the zone and then outraced Olli Maatta for the loose puck before making a move to the backhand on Marc-Andre Fleury.

He’s been a different player in the playoffs.

He did admit following Saturday’s game that it took him a very long time to get adjusted to the system coach Guy Boucher put in place.

“Game 82. It took me longer than most,” he said of getting comfortable with the Boucher system. “I had a tough year with the learning curve. I had some growing pains with it, and I think that’s evident. I think everyone is well aware of that.

“I bought in like everyone else on the team and stuck with it. I’m finally, I guess, getting a reward for it by being here. I said before I would trade all the offense in the world to be in … the Eastern Conference Finals, and pretty happy about it.”

For most of Saturday’s game, the Senators were able to frustrate the Penguins, keeping them off the score board until late in the third period. That set up the opportunity for Ryan, as he sped away on Maatta and finished the game off with a beautiful goal.

Erik Karlsson has garnered headlines for being an absolute star for Ottawa in the playoffs. Pageau has provided plenty of heroics. Ryan has put together some dominant performances, as well. What happened in the regular season seems long ago now.

“I just think that he really became a good, solid two-way player, but that’s what we’ve asked of all our players, whether it’s our defensemen or our forwards,” said Boucher.

“Some guys took a bit more time to be consistent at it, but we’ve seen terrific stretches of Bobby the whole year. For me right now, this is just the finishing part, that’s where it’s paying off. That’s it.”

Report: Daley could return to Penguins lineup for Game 3

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A reinforcement could be on the way for the Penguins’ blue line during the Eastern Conference Final.

According to a report from Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet during Game 1 of the series between the Penguins and Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh defenseman Trevor Daley could potentially return by Game 3.

Daley has missed the last three games for Pittsburgh, after he was hurt last round on a hit from Tom Wilson.

“There might be some help for that depleted blue line on Pittsburgh,” said Kypreos on Saturday. “It’s believed his lower-body injury has rebounded a little better in the last week and he is possible to reappear for Game 3.

“The perception is the production has been down for Pittsburgh, but actually guys it’s probably equal to where it was a year ago, which speaks volumes for guys like Schultz, Hainsey and Cole and their contributions so far in these playoffs.”

That the Penguins got by the Capitals without the injured Kris Letang on the blue line is impressive, even though Pittsburgh’s group of defenders did struggle in Games 5 and 6 against Washington. Instead, they’ve relied upon the likes of Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin and 36-year-old Ron Hainsey to play heavy minutes.

Hainsey, playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in his career, had a key role in setting up Evgeni Malkin‘s tying goal Saturday, before the Penguins lost in overtime and the Sens took the series lead.

“Some guys, we’ve asked them to play more significant roles,” said coach Mike Sullivan prior to Game 1. “I think these guys are giving us everything they have back there. They’re blocking shots, they’re defending hard, they’re helping us come out of our zone.”

Senators frustrate Penguins with overtime win to take series lead

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A work of art, that was not.

But the Ottawa Senators and coach Guy Boucher probably won’t really care about your judgments. The Stanley Cup playoffs remain all about winning and that’s what the Sens did Saturday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final versus the favored Pittsburgh Penguins.

After giving up a late tying goal to Evgeni Malkin, the Senators regrouped in overtime, winning by a final score of 2-1 on a goal from Bobby Ryan, who beat Marc-Andre Fleury with a move to the backhand.

They frustrated the Penguins at just about every turn, neutralizing a speedy Pittsburgh team, keeping its power play at bay, disrupting passes, blocking shots and ultimately quieting the crowd throughout long portions of this game.

In fact, the Penguins power play went 0-for-5 and that includes an unsuccessful five-on-three opportunity early in the first period. Pittsburgh couldn’t capitalize and a few minutes later, the Senators opened the scoring.

Erik Karlsson was prominent throughout the entire game. But Ryan had the winner and he had a helper on Jean-Gabriel Pageau‘s opening goal of the game.

Craig Anderson backed the entire effort with an impressive 27 saves. Arguably his best of the night was a reactionary glove stop on Patric Hornqvist on a deflection in the second period.

There were a few possible injury concerns in the third period for Ottawa.

Mark Stone went to the dressing room in the third period, but he did return. Ryan was hit hard into the boards and was slow to make his way off the ice to the bench, and Cody Ceci was reportedly seen limping down the tunnel to the dressing room. He, too, stayed in the game.

Another reason for Predators’ playoff success? A red hot penalty kill

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The Nashville Predators have broken new ground in franchise history. In their first ever Western Conference Final, Nashville has a 1-0 series lead over the Anaheim Ducks.

There have been a few different reasons for Nashville’s success this post-season. You know all about these two:

— The goaltending they have received from Pekka Rinne has been dynamite. He made 27 saves in Friday’s series opener and now carries a save percentage of .950. No big deal.

— Talk of the production from the blue line — most notably Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and P.K. Subban — has been constant since the first couple of games against the St. Louis Blues in the second round, and the trend continued versus the Ducks.

What may not be getting enough credit in this playoff run so far is the play of Nashville’s penalty kill.

Read more: Neal believes Predators can ‘play any type of game’

During the regular season, the Predators were 15th in the league short handed. Yeah, nothing to write home about. It’s been a totally different story in the playoffs.

“Well, I think Pekka’s the biggest reason, goaltenders are always your best penalty killer and he’s done a great job,” said Josi of Nashville’s penalty killing success.

Since the beginning of the second round — a span now of seven games — the Predators have given up just one power play goal against in 19 opportunities. On Friday, they successfully killed off four Anaheim power plays and allowed only four shots when short handed.

Of the remaining teams in the playoffs, Nashville’s penalty kill is the best, almost two percentage points better than Ottawa. As noted earlier, their top defenders have received plenty of accolades for their production, and rightfully so, but they’ve all been key members of this thriving penalty kill.

Josi leads the team in short-handed ice time and Ellis is right behind him. On Friday, those two, as well as Subban and Mattias Ekholm were all relied upon heavily in that situation. (As was captain Mike Fisher, who doesn’t have a point in the playoffs but remains Peter Laviolette’s top penalty killing forward.)

Again, not only were the Ducks shut out on the score board while on the power play, they didn’t generate many shots on Rinne.

“When you’re in the Final Four … every team’s got a pretty good power play and got players that can break open a game, so you’re not always going to be able to shut them down,” said Subban.

“But you can just try to take away their time and space, and try to disrupt and deter as much as you can.”

In the playoffs, special teams can determine the difference between winning and losing a game or a series. The penalty kill is just another reason why the Predators have continued their winning ways this spring.

Meanwhile, the Ducks power play continues to endure its own struggles. They have just two power play goals in 27 opportunities in their last eight games.

“Our power play has been a little bit touch and go. We have had a lot of looks that we liked but we’re just not getting them in the net,” said Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf.