Erik Karlsson and Sidney Crosby
The Eastern Conference final has come down to a one game, winner-take-all battle between the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins. Which players could be the biggest factors in Game 7?
The beauty of Game 7 is that anyone can be the hero. It can be the goaltender who shuts down everything, transforming into the human embodiment of a brick wall at the best possible moment and singlehandedly guiding his team to the next round. Maybe it’s the fourth-liner, the least likely source of offense, who finds just the right time to hit twine. Then there are the superstars who use Game 7 to add to their legacy, growing their legend with a spectacular performance.
And as the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins enter Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, both will be looking for their respective difference-makers. Ottawa, with its defensive group and “All In” mentality, will be looking for the one player who can find the scoresheet and keep the Cinderella story alive, while the experienced Penguins will be hoping there’s still some magic left in this run to a second-straight Stanley Cup. Who steps up, though, is anyone’s guess.
That said, we can look back at the history of players on both sides of Thursday night’s winner-take-all affair and try to determine which players have shown the gift for coming up big when everything is on the line. It’s these six players — three from each team — who have shown the ability necessary to become major factors in Game 7:
In the post-lockout era, Crosby is tied for 18th in Game 7 scoring with four points to his name, two of which have been goals, and he’s the highest scoring Penguin in Game 7s since he came aboard the franchise. Normally, that alone would be enough to consider Crosby a serious factor heading into a do-or-die contest like Wednesday’s, but that he’s got three goals and five points in the past four games of this series almost guarantees that he’ll have some sort of impact in Game 7. As does the fact that, realistically, he should have more points than he already does in this series.
Across the six games that have been played thus far, Crosby has put a whopping 20 shots on goal. No other Penguin has tested Craig Anderson or the Ottawa defense as much. Crosby has that knack for showing up in big games, and with the chance to win back-to-back Cups, this could be the biggest game of his NHL career.
When looking through a list of Penguins Game 7 heroes during the Crosby era, how many other names would you expect to see first? At least a half-dozen, right? Well, forget about Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, because it’s Rust who has been one of the premier scorers for the Penguins in Game 7s since he joined the club.
That may seem absurd given he’s only played in two Game 7s since becoming a Penguin, but Rust has found the scoresheet in both outings. The first, Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning last season, saw Rust net two goals in little more than 11 minutes of ice time, and his second tally was the game-winning marker. It wasn’t a one-off, though. Early in Game 7 against the Capitals, Rust scored to put the Penguins up 1-0. It was the game-winner.
Rust’s three goals in Game 7s are the fifth-most in the post-lockout era. If he scores tonight, he’ll move into a tie for second place and might earn the title of the new Mr. Game 7.
Kessel remains somewhat underrated as a playoff performer. In 64 career playoff games, he has 30 goals and 61 points, not to mention four game-winning goals. And Kessel hasn’t exactly shied away from showing up in Game 7s. In the decade-plus since the lockout, Kessel has seen five Game 7s. In those contests he has racked up one goal, three points and 18 shots. He’s played big minutes in every game, too.
Making Kessel that much more dangerous is the fact he’s been up there with the hottest Penguins during the Eastern Conference final. Crosby and Malkin take all the headlines, but Kessel’s two goals and five points have him tied with No. 87 and one point behind No. 71. That’s not to mention Kessel is logging the third highest ice time in Pittsburgh, behind Crosby and Jake Guentzel.
Kessel got comfortable playing against the Senators during his days in Toronto, but now he has the chance to break their hearts while suiting up for the Penguins.
There is only one Senator, and one Senator alone, who can say he’s picked up a point in a seventh game: Bobby Ryan. He scored a goal back when he was an Anaheim Duck in Game 7 against the Detroit Red Wings. His one point is more than any other current Senator has in Game 7s in the post-lockout era. It's not all that much to go off of, sure, but looking beyond Game 7, Ryan has shown an ability to show up late in series throughout his career.
Over the past two playoff runs the Senators have had, Ryan has picked up two goals and four points in Games 6 and 7. So, despite what his regular season numbers have said this past season, Ryan might be Ottawa’s best hope at a breakthrough in Game 7. That’s especially so given he’s picked apart the Penguins in this series with two goals and six points in six games. All it’s going to take is one more big game out of Ryan and the Senators could be on to the final.
Karlsson doesn’t have a history of great Game 7 performances, but it would be foolish to leave him off this list. He has seriously come to play in every single game this post-season, and arguably his two best outings have been the ones in which Ottawa has had a chance to advance. In Game 6 against the Boston Bruins, Karlsson turned in a monster 30-minute performance in which he notched an assist. In Game 6 against the New York Rangers, Karlsson assisted on the Senators’ first goal and then sent Ottawa on to the conference final with his late-second period game-winning goal.
It has seemed to be only a matter of time until Karlsson takes over a game in the Eastern Conference final. It hasn’t happened yet, though, and it’s now or never time for the Senators’ captain. Knowing Karlsson, chances are he has his best game of the series Thursday night.
Like the rest of the Senators, Karlsson’s history with Game 7s isn’t all that long. He’s played in one in his career and suffered the loss. Thing is, though, that Anderson was actually quite good during the outing. Anderson turned aside 27 of the 29 shots he faced against the Rangers back in 2012, good for a .931 save percentage, as Ottawa lost 2-1. That’s a stellar performance, but Anderson simply didn’t get the goal support.
Anderson’s history of performing when a series gets into crunch time should make the Senators hopeful, too. In seven career Game 6s and 7s, he has a 3-4 record, but Anderson has posted a .935 SP and 1.99 goals-against average. Ottawa will need to find a way to beat Penguins goaltender Matt Murray a few times Thursday night to give Anderson some support, but if the Senators can do that, Anderson can be the one to shut down the Pittsburgh offense and send Ottawa through to the final.
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