We're a good four months away from seeing any professional hockey in Philadelphia, but this year's NHL playoffs continue to roll on.
The Eastern Conference semifinal series kicks off tonight at 7:30 p.m., with the Ottawa Senators traveling to Pittsburgh to face off against the Penguins. Looking for an excuse to watch? Below, the nuts and bolts of what you need to know to enjoy this Flyers-less playoff series.
Let's play catch-up
It took the Penguins six games – and a lot more effort – to eliminate the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals than anyone expected. And Pens starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had a fair amount of trouble, looking a lot like he did last spring against the Flyers. Fleury was eventually ousted in favor of backup Tomas Vokoun, who was in net for Games 5 and 6.
By contrast, the Sens capitalized on goalie issues in their opening-round series against the Montreal Canadiens, in which Habs goalie Carey Price was injured and had to be replaced with backup Peter Budaj. Ottawa's goaltender, Craig Anderson, arguably kept them in the series, too. Though it took only five games for the seventh-ranked Sens to knock off the No. 2-seeded Canadiens, they were far from adept at starting games, putting the pressure on Anderson (who allowed only two first-period goals on 66 opening-stanza shots).
The matchup might not have the cache of, say, a Flyers-Pens series or a Boston-Montreal pairing, but these two teams do have some history. They've faced each other in the playoffs three times, with the Pens emerging as victors in the two more recent meetings (2010, 2008).
Things get particularly interesting if you zero in on this year's Senators-Penguins relationship, however. First: The Penguins took all three of the games in the teams' regular-season series in 2013, outscoring the Sens 9-4 in the process. But it's the meeting between these two teams on Feb. 13 that really adds some drama to this series.
Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, one of the best young blueliners in the league, was the victim of a scary incident in that game, in which a skate blade sliced through his left Achilles tendon, leading many to believe he'd miss the rest of the Sens' 2013 campaign. (He returned, obviously). But it was Penguins forward Matt Cooke who delivered the hit that led to Karlsson's injury, and it's safe to say neither Karlsson nor his teammates have forgotten that fact. Cooke, of course, said the play was unintentional; but that doesn't mean tensions won't be high on both sides of the red line.
Also, as it was against the Islanders, expect the Penguins to continue to avenge their 2011-12 fate of falling to the Flyers in an embarrassing fashion in the playoffs' first round. The big question for them is, then: Which goaltender will give them a better shot to compete with Anderson and the Sens? Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has so far been mum on the subject.
Players to watch
Penguins: Sidney Crosby
Sorry, Flyers fans – we know that’s probably not what you want to read right now. But Crosby was impressive during the Pens’ first-round series, netting three goals and tacking on six assists after returning from a jaw injury for Game 2. On a team all but defined by its offensive depth, Crosby continues to be one of the most exciting players to follow – but if paying attention to the Flyers’ arch rival doesn’t do it for you, keep an eye on Evgeni Malkin. The dangerous Russian leads the Pens with 11 postseason points.
Senators: Erik Karlsson
Karlsson was the recipient of last season’s Norris Trophy (awarded to the NHL’s top defenseman). He was arguably on pace for another impressive season when he suffered that aforementioned 70-percent tear of his left Achilles tendon, causing him to miss 31 games. But Karlsson, who returned just before the regular season came to an end, hasn’t lost a step. He was the best Senator on the ice through the team’s five-game series with the Canadiens.
(Consider keeping an eye on Jason Spezza, too. The Sens’ center practiced this weekend for the first time since he underwent back surgery in February. While there’s no guarantee he’ll make an appearance in the series, he changes the Sens’ landscape entirely if he does.)
As mentioned, Pittsburgh swept the Senators this season, outscoring them 9-4 in the process. But the Pens had some trouble containing the Islanders’ young, quick forwards, and similar issues could plague them against Ottawa (especially if Spezza returns to the lineup during the series). That said, as long as the Penguins are motivated – instead of exhausted – by their emotional first-round series, this matchup is theirs for the taking. Penguins in six.