Eastern Conference Final Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Boston Bruins
As we come down the home stretch in the playoffs, the matchups are becoming much tighter and the stakes are much higher. Every team remaining in the postseason has won a Stanley Cup within the last four years, so the experience is there. On Saturday night, the Penguins and Bruins will face off in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final in Pittsburgh, and it should be one hell of a series. The big bad Bruins will try and impose their will on the skilled Penguins, and the Penguins will try and make the Bruins play defense constantly. Let’s take a look at some of the top storylines to watch in this series.
1. Style vs. Style
This is going to be a series of clashing styles, as the Bruins like to play a physical brand of hockey that sees them send a lot of traffic to the opposition’s net, while the Penguins play a puck possession game in which they want to spend as much time as possible making their opponents play in their defensive zone. Whichever team can establish the style of play that they want faster than the other will have a distinct advantage.
2. The Crosby Effect
It’s a widely accepted fact that the Penguins possess the best player on this planet in Sidney Crosby. Stopping Crosby is nearly impossible, so the best most teams can hope for is to slow him down, and the Bruins will look to do just that. The dilemma that the Bruins face will be how to do it. You can be assured that Zdeno Chara will be in between Crosby and Crosby’s shadow every shift. But Chara has looked tired and a step slow throughout these playoffs, so the Bruins will probably have perennial Selke contender Patrice Bergeron out against Crosby along with Chara on every shift. Enter the Crosby Effect:with your best defensive forward and defenseman out against Crosby, who will be matched up against James Neal, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, and Kris Letang? The Bruins will have to “pick their poison” so to speak as to which line they want to take their chances with. If I were a betting man, I’d say Bergeron and Chara shadow Crosby, and the Bruins will be comfortable with the Nathan Horton-David Krejci-Milan Lucic line to outduel the Neal-Malkin-Iginla combo.
3. Keep Your Cool
Perhaps the biggest key to the series for both teams will be discipline. Because the Bruins like to play a physical brand of hockey, they may be able to goad the Penguins into taking some bad after-whistle and frustration penalties. Malkin and Neal both struggled with this during the regular season. Conversely, because of the skill and speed of the Penguins mixed with their ability to mix it up a little as well, the Bruins will have to watch the hooking and holding penalties. Both teams want to stay out of the box because both teams have been very good, if not great, on the power play this postseason, Likewise, neither team has been overwhelming on the penalty kill. Discipline is a sign of a well-coached team, and both coaches are in the top tier of coaches in this league. Limiting the opponents’ special teams play will also be important as both teams like to roll all four lines to get into the groove of the game. Chances are whoever scores the most special teams goals will win this series.
4. Goaltending, Goaltending, Goaltending
If you have read any hockey article on TheCover4, you’ll probably notice that we believe goaltending to be the biggest factor in any NHL game, and this series will be no different. Quietly, Tomas Vokoun has posted a 6-1 record in this year’s playoffs, with a .941 save percentage, trailing only Jonathan Quick in that department. However, many will give the goaltending advantage to the Bruins and Tuukka Rask. Like every other aspect of each of these two teams, it is very close. Rask has been very good for the Bruins all year, and it is clear that he is their guy between the pipes. On the other end of the rink, you have the aforementioned Vokoun, who took over for the embattled Cup-winning Marc-Andre Fleury midway through the Penguins’ first-round series against the Islanders. Vokoun has been good when called upon, but questions still remain about how long his leash is should he falter a bit. You know Fleury is biding his time and wants to get back in as soon as possible, but which Fleury will the Penguins get if that time comes? The Fleury of their ’09 Cup run? Or the Fleury of the ’12 Flyers series? Hopefully for Pittsburgh fans, they won’t have to find out, and Vokoun will keep up with his solid play.
Hockey is a very emotional sport and there will be many emotions flowing throughout this series. Both Pittsburgh’s ConsolEnergyCenter and Boston’s TD Garden are tough venues for visiting teams. With Boston still recovering from the tragic Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent craziness that ensued, the city has rallied behind the Bruins, and the Bruins have reflected the sentiment by wearing “Boston Strong” decals during games and police, fire and armed forces clothing in their postgame interviews. While I’m sure it is not their main motivation, never underestimate that little extra motivation. In addition to that, the Boston players will surely want to make Iginla see the error of his trade deadline choice to nix a trade to Boston, in order to be dealt to Pittsburgh where he felt was his best chance to meet Lord Stanley. In addition to Iginla seeking his first Cup, the Penguins also feature the likes of Neal, Douglas Murray, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen, Vokoun and Brandon Sutter all looking for their first Cup victory, so the hunger will still be there for the Pens. Once we get into this series, I am sure you will see some very intense, emotional hockey played.
Who Ya Takin’?
From early into this season, many have been eyeing a Bruins-Penguins Eastern Conference Finals. They have been the two best teams all year in the East and have past experience to help them. Many picture this series going seven games. While at first glance it looks like an even match-up, the Penguins just seem to edge the Bruins in nearly every department: depth, speed, skill, scoring. But the two departments that the Bruins are at least their equal, if not superior, are goaltending and physicality. Luckily for the Bruins, those are two huge departments. As Ottawa showed against Pittsburgh, a good goalie can steal at least one game single handedly. Unfortunately for the Bruins, Craig Anderson in Ottawa is better than Rask, and Rask has yet to see an offensive dynamo like the Penguins. I just don’t think that the Bruins have the players to get it done. The Penguins skill and puck possession will be the difference in this series.
Penguins in 6.
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