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Staying the course will redeem Pens in long run

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These last two games for Ottawa could be the result of a four-week magician's training camp, or the brash attempt to surgically rope-a-dope the Penguins.

Either way, their bend and please don’t break strategy was flowing perfectly until Phil Kessel knocked in his own rebound off a one-timer with 6:55 left in the third period of Monday’s Game two 1-0 dispatching of the Sens in the Eastern Conference Finals. 

Prior to that goal, the Senators had Kessel so flustered, so infuriated, he could be seen through various points of the game yelling at both himself and his teammates on the bench.

He wasn't the only one feeling the stress.

“They are trying to frustrate us,” said Scott Wilson after Monday’s crucial win.  “A little bit there it was getting to us, but we have a strong group in here, and we were able to keep ourselves motivated and get through that.”

Pure fortituous luck or consistent defensive prowess, the Senators have allowed just two goals in six periods, despite the Pens thoroughly dominating in blue line defense, puck possession and offensive zone opportunities, which included a governing 30-9 advantage in Game two.

“You always want to get off to a good start and get that lead,” said Justin Schultz after the Pens’ 2-1 Game one loss in overtime Saturday.  “Against these guys, they shut it down real good.  It’s different (from Washington), it’s a lot different." 

Puzzlers have been thrown about everywhere in this series, starting with the fact that Ottawa has outshot the heavily favored, offensive-minded Pens, 58-57; attached with a penalty kill unit that has held Pittsburgh to a dismal 0-for-7.

It’s not that Ottawa uses the forecheck with authoritative power like Washington and Columbus did.  Despite an earth-rattling hit that injured Bryan Rust early in Game two, the Sens’ hit power has been overpowered by a difference of 82-63 in favor of the Penguins.   And don’t even think we’re anywhere near the offensive fortitude the Capitals had the ability of showing in streaks this postseason.  This is just, as Wilson simply put it, frustrating, with scoring chances and offensive opportunities not coming to fruition.

“I think, when you look at the two games, we played five good periods out of six, and the third period cost us the game tonight,” said Ottawa Coach Guy Bouchard.

Let’s stop right there.

Sure, the Senators have held their own with Pittsburgh, and they certainly deserve to be skating on unbiased ice, but the Pens—several fancy statistics aside—have utterly dominated this team in the early stages of this series. 

So how do you circumvent Ottawa’s current ability to keep the Penguins off the scoreboard?  Well, just ask the hockey pragmatist himself.

“We're a team that doesn't beat itself.  We make sure that we stay focused.  We take what the game gives us out there,” Mike Sullivan said.  “There's going to be shifts against a team that's playing defense first, the way they are, and their counterattack mentality where there's going to be shifts out there where you might not get much, and we have to be okay with that. And that's fine because they're not getting much either.”

Case and point, one of the best strategic coaches in the league knows exactly how the Penguins win this series, and that's through keeping focus, maintaining tempo, continuing to pressure in the offensive zone, taking advantage of the scoring chances, and eventually those pucks start tickling twine, sounding horns and lighting red lamps.

And even with Rust, Trevor Daley, Patric Hornqvist and Schultz’s health in the air, the current core group of the Penguins that finished off Monday’s win can still get the best of Ottawa if they just stay the course.

“I think our strength is our depth,” said Olli Maata of overcoming the injuries in this series.  “It happens. It's part of hockey.  It's obviously unfortunate.  There's always the next guy who's going to step up. Everybody has to play a little more minutes, but I don't think it really matters. We have so many good players in here.”

If anybody could calm the nerves of Penguins fans, it would be the most experienced postseason star, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has allowed just two goals in six periods and an overtime of play this series.

“I think it was just the patience, showing up for 60 minutes,” said Flower shortly after achieving his 10th career postseason shutout Monday.  “We knew what to expect from them, and we stuck with it.  We kept playing our game.  Everybody talks about how good of a defense they are, but tonight we had the puck so much, and we didn't give them much. I thought we controlled the play from start to finish."

Patience will most certainly have been proven the virtue by series end, when the Penguins will be just one step away from successfully defending the Stanley Cup.

In terms of betting between the blue lines, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the public darlings of the Eastern Conference, however it is the Vegas Golden Knights who have dethroned the Pens as the top-wagered NHL team this year, and it looks to stay the same way as we enter the 2018 NHL Playoffs.
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