Courtesy of Schneider Downs

Bradford’s three keys for Penguins vs. Senators

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The Senators. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

A year ago, the Penguins ended the Senators’ season in excruciating fashion when Chris Kunitz scored in double overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

The Penguins will end the Senators' season again tonight, but Ottawa can exact some revenge. 

The Senators could keep the Penguins from hosting their first-round playoff series with a win.

Pittsburgh has already punched its playoff ticket but its opponent is still undetermined even after Thursday night's dramatic 5-4 overtime win at Columbus. That victory merely kept the Penguins from slipping to the second wildcard spot. 

The Penguins remain in second place in the Metropolitan Division, a point ahead of the Devils and Blue Jackets, who are tied for third. With a win tonight the Penguins can clinch second place and would open at home next week. Lose, and things get a little hairier, including potentially opening on the road as a wildcard.

Obviously, they don't want to do that. The Penguins have the NHL’s third-best home points total (60) but are just 17-20-4 away from PPG Paints Arena. 

1. Swede surrender?

The Senators have become a dysfunctional mess after last spring’s surprising playoff run. The problems start at the top with meddlesome owner Eugene Melnyk, but they trickle down throughout the organization.

Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion was one of the biggest sellers at the trade deadline, discarding Brassard and Dion Phaneuf, most notably. The biggest piece he did not move was Erik Karlsson, perhaps the best defenseman in the game.

Karlsson was reported to be on the move at the deadline, but a deal to Vegas could not be worked out in time. An unrestricted free agent after next season, the Swede would seem almost certain to be moved this summer.

The best indication of that came after Monday night’s 6-5 loss to the Jets in the Senators’ final home game of the season. Karlsson fished out the puck from the net as the buzzer sounded. The gesture was eerily reminiscent of when previous captain Daniel Alfredsson did the same following Ottawa’s playoff loss to the Penguins in Game 4 of the second round in 2014. That game ended up being Alfredsson’s last as a Senator.

Will Karlsson’s Ottawa career end against the Penguins, too?  Probably not.

Karlsson did not make the trip for Wednesday night’s game in Buffalo, choosing to be with his wife, Melinda, following the death of their son, AxelSenators coach Guy Boucher has left the door open for Karlsson to play the final two games but he told reporters that he is not expecting that to happen.

Mark Stone was hoping to return to the Senators' lineup Friday after a 14-game absence but Boucher announced after Thursday's practice in Pittsburgh that he is being shut down. Craig Anderson will get the start in goal, Boucher confirmed.

2. Take care of business.

The Senators have suffered a 30-point decline from where they were a year ago and have lost eight of their last 10, while being outscored 40-23. With the Karlsson situation hanging over their heads, this team has clearly given up.

No, that doesn’t mean that the Penguins have a night off. If we’ve seen anything from them in recent weeks — in losses against the Islanders, Rangers and Red Wings — it's that they have an uncanny ability to play down to the level of their competition.

Regardless of their playoff opponent or seeding, the Penguins will want to go into the postseason on a winning note. The clearest route to victory for the Penguins has been their power play. 

With Ottawa's penalty kill ranking 28th at 76.0 percent, the NHL's top-ranked unit should be able to find success, at least theoretically. The Penguins are 2-0 against Ottawa this season, outscoring them 9-4, and 2-of-3 on the power play.

3. Don’t get hurt. No, seriously, do not get hurt.

Actually, this could be keys Nos. 1, 2 and 3. The best thing the Penguins can do tonight — yes, even more than win — is to walk away from the game unscathed. The Penguins have shown they can win on the road and beat quality opponents, but no team can win if they are not healthy. 

Despite the groin injury which continues to sideline former Senator Derick Brassard, the Penguins are as healthy, relatively, as they can be for the first week of April.

There are no major injuries to report and keeping it that way is job No. 1 for the Penguins.

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