Modern-day Senators have never won Game 7

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Thursday in Pittsburgh, the Ottawa Senators will not only be playing for a spot in the Stanley Cup Final, they’ll also be looking for their first Game 7 triumph in franchise history.

The Sens, in their modern form, have been around since 1992. Five times they’ve gone to Game 7. All five times they’ve lost.

Their most recent Game 7 loss came in 2012, when they fell to the Rangers in the first round.

But arguably their most painful loss came in 2003, when they made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final — right where they are now — and fell to the eventual champs from New Jersey.

That 2003 Game 7 was played at home, too. And the Sens back then featured the likes of Marian Hossa, Daniel Alfredsson, Wade Redden, and Zdeno Chara. They had won the Presidents’ Trophy with 113 points in the regular season.

But after cruising fairly comfortably through the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Sens were finally beaten by a Jeff Friesen goal with just over two minutes remaining in Game 7. The Devils took the game, 3-2, then went on to beat the Ducks in seven.

Now, obviously, the 2017 Senators didn’t have anything to do with that game, or the other four Game 7 defeats.

That said, they’ll be big underdogs in their sixth try tomorrow in Pittsburgh. If they can somehow find a way to knock off the Penguins, it’ll be some kind of special victory.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Five potential landing spots for Ilya Kovalchuk

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–The Boston Bruins received some solid contributions from rookies like Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy, but there are more youngsters on the way. CSN New England’s Joe Haggerty looks at the next five prospects that could help the Bruins. Former first-round pick Jake DeBrusk might be closer to the NHL than most people realize. (CSN New England)

–The Dallas Stars had a disappointing season in 2016-17. Yesterday afternoon, they took the first step towards being a better team by acquiring Ben Bishop’s negotiating rights from Los Angeles, but is there another move on the horizon? Beat reporter Mike Heika looks at five free agent forwards that could interest Dallas. If Alex Radulov hits the open market, he could make sense for the Stars. (Dallas Morning News)

–The Hockey News’ Matt Larkin begins his division-by-division expansion draft preview that includes potential protected lists and trades candidates. Larkin starts with the Atlantic Division. It sounds like the Lightning will have an interesting problem, as they may need to expose Alex Killorn. (The Hockey News)

–The New York Rangers are done. After going down 2-0 in the first period, the Rangers tried to battle back, but they ultimately came up short. You can check out the highlights from Game 6 by clicking the video at the top of the page.

–Yesterday, we found out that Ilya Kovalchuk was interested in coming back to the NHL. So The Score breaks down five logical landing spots for the Russian sniper. Carolina could be an intriguing landing spot for the 34-year-old winger. (The Score)

–Here’s another great top 10 list from Sean McIndoe. This time, he breaks down the “craziest” Game 7s in Edmonton Oilers’ history. Number one should still be pretty fresh in people’s minds, as it involves falling to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Final in 2006. (Sportsnet)

–The Oilers and Ducks will battle in Game 7 tonight, so to get ready for the clash, Edmonton’s Eric Gryba decided to grill some duck:

Erik Karlsson was reportedly seen limping after Game 6

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Great sports performances can become mythologized when a player fights through injuries.

Kirk Gibson’s home run was basically a sappy Hollywood baseball movie come to life. Patrice Bergeron was just one of the many hockey players who’ve won big despite jarring injuries. Curt Schilling may or may not have been embellishing his bloody-sock heroics, but it’s easy to understand the temptation.

So, maybe it’s wise to apply a grain of salt along with a bag of ice here, but Ottawa Senators superstar Erik Karlsson was limping in the locker room after scorching the New York Rangers in Game 6, according to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.

As you may recall, Karlsson raised some eyebrows when he revealed that he had been playing against the Boston Bruins with two hairline fractures in his heel. While the Swedish defenseman said that he expected to be fine by the time the second round began, there were plenty of theories to the contrary. Midway through the series, Mike Milbury wondered if the Rangers needed to go after Karlsson considering his challenges.

Here are some theories on his current condition, in case the Senators/Karlsson are a little less transparent as they head into the Eastern Conference Final.

  • Karlsson is hurting, but maybe doing a little better than we believe.
  • It’s as bad or worse, yet he’s just that good.
  • He’s taunting us and playing things up a tad.
  • Some combination of those above points?

Then again, there’s also this theory, which may make you break your coffee cup.

Goodness.

Bruins ‘doing everything we possibly can’ to sign prospect Bjork

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Boston will soon learn the fate of prized prospect Anders Bjork.

Bjork, the club’s fifth-round pick at the 2014 draft, has blossomed into one of the top collegiate players in the country and, accordingly, one of the Bruins’ most important assets.

But he’s yet to decide if he wants to turn pro, or head back to Notre Dame for his senior season.

“We’re doing everything we possibly can,” Bruins president Cam Neely said of the club’s push to sign Bjork, per CSNNE. “He had a very difficult decision (about turning pro) right after his season was over. I think it was overwhelming for him. He’s at the World Championships now. His camp has told Don that he’s going to make a decision whether or not to return to college hockey or turn pro after the World Championships at some point.

“Our hopes are that he sees where we’re at as a team and some of the young players we’re putting in our lineup. We hope that he understands that he’s a player that we think very highly of that can step in and contribute [in the NHL].”

Bjork, 20, is currently playing for Team USA at the Worlds, another indication he’s viewed by hockey folk as a youngster that’s ready to make the leap. His selection by USA Hockey comes after a stellar junior campaign with the Fighting Irish, in which he racked up 52 points in 39 games, helping the school advance to the Frozen Four.

There were rumblings the B’s first tried to get Bjork to turn pro right after his collegiate season ended, not unlike what they did with Charlie McAvoy. And the club certainly showed a willingness to implement youngsters into the lineup, as McAvoy averaged a whopping 26:12 TOI per game during Boston’s opening-round playoff loss to Ottawa.

Bjork, of course, has options. If he sticks around for another year at ND, he could head into next summer facing the prospect of unrestricted free agency — “pulling a Vesey,” as it’s come to be known.