Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Penguins vs. Bruins
The Penguins and the Bruins last met in the playoffs during the 1991-92 season, when the Penguins swept the Bruins in the Wales Conference Final en route to the Pens’ second consecutive Stanley Cup. The exact same matchup had happened the year before with the exact same result. That ’92 playoff series would be the last time the Bruins made it to the Eastern Conference Finals until the Bruins won the Cup in the 2010-2011 season.
For all the lack of recent postseason action, Penguins-Bruins games have been events in and of themselves in the regular season, enough to create a real rivalry of sorts. There have been high-scoring games, blown leads, and one-goal nailbiters. Ex-Penguins Jaromir Jagr and Mark Recchi, who earned Cup rings with the Penguins in their early 90’s dominance, have recently suited up for the Bruins, and Jagr will make yet another return to Pittsburgh in this series.
There’s also Matt Cooke, whose inexcusable elbow to Marc Savard’s head during a game on March 7, 2010 caused one of two concussions that ended Savard’s career. There’s also Jarome Iginla, who had reportedly accepted a trade to the Bruins at the deadline this year from the Calgary Flames–only to go to the Penguins instead. The only game this season at TD Garden between the two clubs saw Iginla being loudly booed every time he touched the puck. Now, Iginla has four goals and 12 points in the playoffs with the Penguins crest across his jersey.
Bruins and Penguins fans already know these story lines. The truly bad blood between the teams seems a few years old, but it hasn’t washed away by any means. It figures to be an emotional series–but how do the two teams match up against each other in their lineups?
Both teams are deep at forward with different models of skill. The Penguins obviously have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as their one-two punch at center. Malkin has been quieter than his last deep run into the playoffs in 2009, but still has an impressive 16 points this year. Sidney Crosby has lit up the world on his good nights–he and his linemate, Pascal Dupuis, are tied for the league lead in goals. James Neal is just heating up, and Chris Kunitz and Iginla have been reliable scorers. Brandon Sutter hasn’t been scoring, but he has provided reliable penalty killing and shutdown minutes.
The bottom six of the Penguins lineup has been constantly rotating, however. Craig Adams is a constant, a stalwart penalty killer who also might take an odd shift with Sidney Crosby just because. For the rest of the bottom six, Jussi Jokinen, Joe Vitale, Tanner Glass, Brenden Morrow, Beau Bennett and Tyler Kennedy are all playable options. Kennedy has proven himself to be a playoff performer and has generally stayed in the lineup despite a disappointing regular season–but this is when it all starts to count. Let’s not forget Matt Cooke, who seems to take shifts on every line and has been an important role-player for the Pens.
The Penguins favor skill mixed in with grit, but the Bruins might do it the other way around–grit first, skill mixed favorably in. The top line of David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic has been deadly in the first two rounds, but has cooled off in recent games, with most of the points on each player’s scoresheet coming from the Toronto series rather than the more recent Rangers one. Still, it’s safe to say that while goal scoring will certainly be important to the Bruins, their main goal will be to try to slow the Penguins’ roll.
The Penguins average four goals per game, the most of anyone else these playoffs, and enough to make up for less-than-perfect defensive hockey at times. The Bruins’ offense, even with Krejci’s production, is simply not as good or consistent. The Bruins should be able to score against the Penguins, but they will have to be a truly shut-down team to make those goals count. The fact that the Bruins’ top line has also been good defensively does not hurt them one bit.
The second line for the Bruins has been a constant threat as well. Brad Marchand was the glue that held the B’s offense together through the regular season and he continues to be a threat in the playoffs. The “fourth line” of Gregory Campbell, Shawn Thornton, and Daniel Paille has been the difference-maker for the Bruins in several big situations, contributing huge goals during the Rangers series and generally making up for the thus far relatively ineffectual third line. Should the scoring pace of Rich Peverley, Tyler Seguin and Chris Kelly not pick up, they’ll want to at least match up effectively with the Pens and hope to create turnovers.
In short, the Penguins have the obvious advantage at forward, but the Bruins play a more physical game and can hope to out-hit the Penguins to spur on their offense and keep the Pens forwards bottled in.
Defense is a mixed bag for Pittsburgh. Kris Letang, their Norris Trophy nominated defenseman, has had moments of defensive brilliance and beautiful goals, but also moments of bad turnovers and acting out on his temper. Luckily, for every mistake Letang has made, most of the other defensemen have been excellent, from heavy-hitters Brooks Orpik and Douglas Murray to power-play insurance guys like Matt Niskanen and Paul Martin. The Pens defense has a little bit of everything.
The Bruins always have Zdeno Chara’s physicality and big shot, and have recently gained back their captain’s d-partner, Dennis Seidenberg, who complements Chara with a bit more of a traditional style. The B’s also made it this deep in the playoffs, however, without much veteran presence, skating three total rookies on the blue line before Seidenberg’s return. Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski have been strong for them, looking not like first-year defensemen but rather like guys with at least a few years of NHL experience. Krug was a huge surprise in particular, scoring four goals in the semifinals against the Rangers. The Bruins will be looking for their defensemen not to score first, however, but to keep guys like Sidney Crosby stuck at his own side of center red. Whether the Bruins’ young d-men are up to this challenge remains to be seen.
In goal, the Penguins figure to stick with Tomas Vokoun, who has, at least for now, taken over Marc-André Fleury’s cage. Vokoun has a .941 save percentage and a 1.85 goals against average. Vokoun has been simply lights out for the Pens with his only loss coming in a win-or-get-swept game for the Ottawa Senators in overtime. For the Bruins, Tuukka Rask has a 2.22 GAA and a .928 save percentage, which isn’t as good, but he has all eight of his team’s wins and has proven he can get them through some tough games, making saves when they needed to be made even if the whole game has not been stellar.
This is a tough prediction to make. It’s easy to say that the Penguins’ offense is just better, that their goaltending is just better. But the Bruins are going to come with fire, heavy hitting, and speed to challenge each piece of the Pens’ key pieces. Ultimately, though, the Bruins have not faced an opponent this formidable in terms of offense yet. While it will be close, as long as the Pens don’t have the types of defensive breakdowns that almost got them into trouble with the Islanders, they will simply outscore the Boston Bruins, but not perhaps without an overtime thriller or two that could go either way.