NHL playoffs Eastern Conference Final preview: No. 1 Penguins vs. No. 4 Bruins
By Allan Muir
It's been 21 years since Boston and Pittsburgh last clashed in the postseason. Now that they're meeting again, the Bruins will look to Jaromir Jagr, the man who helped wipe them out back in 1992, to guide Boston past its old nemesis and back into the Stanley Cup Final. The Bruins paid a steep price for Jagr at the deadline, but to this point the veteran has been a passenger more nights than not. The B's are hoping the chance to suit up against his former team will bring Jagr out of his funk. If not, maybe the pressure of matching up against the player the Bruins originally tried to acquire, Jarome Iginla, will light a fire under the 41-year-old winger.
Although the Jagr-Iginla storyline is sure to be front and center heading into the series, the real key will be the game-within-a-game battle between Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron. Former Team Canada linemates and now the game's top offensive and defensive forwards, the two will likely be joined at the hip for the duration. It's a good bet that Crosby, free of the restrictive headgear he wore in the first two rounds, will find a way to get his points, but his challenge will lie in preventing Bergeron from doing the same.
March 12: Penguins 3, Bruins 2
March 17: Penguins 2, Bruins 1
April 20: Penguins 3, Bruins 2
Pittsburgh's offense is a furious, frightening thing. After averaging a league-best 3.38 goals per game during the regular season, the Penguins have somehow amped up their assault during the playoffs, averaging 4.27 GPG -- a level not seen in almost two decades. Centers Evgeni Malkin (16 points) and Crosby (15) are leading the way, but the Pens are also getting surprising contributions from blueliner Kris Letang (16) and winger Pascal Dupuis, whose 10 points include a league-leading seven goals (tied with Crosby). Winger James Neal, who struggled through much of the first two rounds, comes in red hot with five goals and seven points in his last two games. Deadline acquisitions Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow add grit, experience and flexibility. The two wingers will prove their value in this series.
Boston can't match Pittsburgh's high-end firepower, so the Bruins will hope to grind the Pens down with their depth. Slippery center David Krejci leads all playoff scorers with 17 points. Skating between 800-pound gorilla Milan Lucic (12) and Nathan Horton (14), Krejci leads a dangerous top line. Center Bergeron and winger Brad Marchand started slow, but began firing on all cylinders in Game 7 of the Toronto series. Their speed will pose problems for the Pens. Center Tyler Seguin (1-3-4) and winger Jagr (0-4-4) have given Boston nothing to this point. That free ride ends here. Those two need to do more than take shots or protect the puck against the Pens. If not, the Bruins don't stand a chance. Boston's one clear edge will be the Merlot Line. Gregory Campbell, Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille create all sorts of havoc with their speed in the neutral zone and their ability to pin the opposition deep in its own end for 30 seconds at a time. If they can exact a physical toll in the first two games, it may pay off if the series gets to Games 6 and 7.
The Islanders did the Pens a solid over the course of their first-round meeting by reminding Pittsburgh that its sloppy defensive posture was going to send it to the golf course if it didn't get its act together. The Pens still won't remind anyone of the late-70s Canadiens, but they proved they could tighten things up later in that series, and they did so again against the Senators in Round 2.
Letang may be a Norris Trophy finalist, but he's an adventure every time he's on the ice. He'll cough up the puck at the worst moment, but he usually redeems himself (13 gives to 11 takes). Consider the pivotal Game 4 against the Sens: Letang blew his coverage twice, helping Ottawa establish a 2-1 lead, then responded with four assists on the way to a 7-3 win. With Letang, the best defense is a good offense. But this series could come down to the effectiveness of Brooks Oprik and Douglas Murray. Pittsburgh's bruisers will be tested by Boston's big, marauding forwards, who'll try to establish a presence in the crease. If the Pens win that battle, they'll win the series.
Boston's strength is on the blueline. Led by Zdeno Chara, who has been (mostly) brilliant to this point, and underrated partner Dennis Seidenberg, this group is big, physical, smart and disciplined. They allow a lot of shots (32.6 per game), but may be the league's best at controlling the middle of the ice, so the high quality chances are hard to come by.
Rookie Torey Krug is the X-factor in this bunch. Pressed into service after injuries decimated Boston's D corps, the 5-foot-9 rookie stunned everyone, including his teammates, with a four-goal, five-point performance against the Rangers. It's unlikely that he'll match that pace against the Pens, but his speed and ability to key the transition game give the Bruins a different look than they had during their regular-season meetings with Pittsburgh.
There's a sense that Tomas Vokoun is dancing along the razor's edge, holding his job as Pittsburgh's starter only until the next bad goal, at which point Marc-Andre Fleury will swoop in to reclaim the No. 1 job. Heading into the Ottawa series, maybe that was true. Now? Barring injury or a couple of Fleury-esque disasters, Vokoun is the man who'll be backstopping Pittsburgh's Cup dreams. And why not? Vokoun is 6-1 with a 1.85 GAA and a .941 save percentage that's second only to Jonathan Quick (.947). Vokoun doesn't play the same lights-out style as the Kings' keeper, but even with the occasional bobble, Vokoun is making the stops he has to make and has given the Pens a chance to win every game -- something Fleury couldn't do.
Tuuka Rask, meanwhile, could easily have been a Vezina Trophy finalist after finishing fourth in the league with a 2.00 GAA and third with a .929 save percentage. His numbers have declined during the postseason (2.22 and .928), but he's arguably been a better goaltender. Unlike Vokoun, Rask has been called on to win games for Boston to this point, and on several nights he's been the difference between victory and defeat. He's had the odd hiccup -- everyone's still trying to figure out who tossed that banana peel on the ice during New York's Game 4 win -- but after a solid comeback effort in Game 5, there shouldn't be any doubts about Rask's ability to carry this team. Of course, the Penguins offer an entirely different challenge than the Leafs or Rangers. For Boston to win, Rask has to be the best player on the ice at least four times over the next seven games. And remember, he's playing for a new contract this summer. This is his time to shine.
Pittsburgh boasts the top power play of the postseason, firing at a lethal 28.3 percent. With two dangerous units that bring completely different looks, the Pens have proved to be nearly as good on the road (5-for-19) as they are at home (8-for-27), which could help swing the series their way early. But they've also allowed a league-high three shorthanded goals, partially because they employ four forwards on the first unit. That can be exploited.
The power play earns so much attention that the Penguins' top-notch penalty kill unit gets overlooked. Currently sitting at 89.3 percent, ranked third in the postseason, they're using an aggressive posture that did a great job taking time and space away from Ottawa's Erik Karlsson. Considering how heavily Boston's power play leans on its point men, look for the Pens to use a similar attacking style against the Bruins.
Boston's recent success has come despite its power play, not because of it, so the Bruins have to make hay five-on-five. The unit came to life against the Rangers, scoring four times on just 12 chances (three by Krug), but it's best not to expect similar results from a team that ranked 26th during the regular season at just 14.8 percent. Anything the Bruins get on the PP in this series is a bonus.
The real issue, though, is the Bruins' PK. Cruising along at 87.1 percent during the regular season, it's down to just 81.1 percent in the playoffs. Part of that falls on the spate of defensive injuries, but mostly it's been about weak execution; in particular, a failure to make easy clears when the opportunity was there. The B's need to tighten it up to avoid getting their doors blown off.
Both Dan Bylsma and Claude Julien have won the Jack Adams Award within the past five years, and both have won the Stanley Cup. But they're not just about skins on the wall. Bylsma made the bold move to bench Fleury and stick with Vokoun early in the Islanders series. Julien, never one to trust a rookie when a veteran can do the job, allowed his trio of kid defenders to play their games instead of trying to force them to fit his mold. Genius move. Honestly, there's not much to choose between them here.
Penguins in five: Some teams just match up well against another. For whatever reason, Pittsburgh has owned Boston for a long time. The Bruins will do a better job of containing Pittsburgh's offense than the Sens did, but ultimately there's just too much firepower at Bylsma's disposal for Boston to keep pace. Barring a meltdown by Vokoun--or the hockey gods finally evening things up for the Ulf Samuelsson hit on Cam Neely--this series will end quickly.