As if there wasn't enough reason to want to win an Eastern Conference Finals (Hello! The Stanley Cup Finals!), this series has a lot of added intrigue or good story lines. There's Jarome Iginla picking Pittsburgh over Boston to go after the Stanley Cup which has eluded him, after there was already a possibly deal - that was leaked - to bring him to the Bruins (a team by the way he had put on his list of teams he would want to be traded to). There's Jaromir Jagr, the Iginla replacement plan for the Bruins, who, let's just say isn't a fan or organizational favorite in Pittsburgh. Marc Savard's career-ender, Matt Cooke is also on the Pens...you know, that reformed bad guy who's dirty play causes rule changes. The series has the Ray Shero vs. Peter Chiarelli aspect, since Shero was almost hired as the Bruins GM, but Chiarelli beat him out for the job. You have Tuukka Rask, who although he has been a borderline great goaltender in his own right is still battling the shadow of Tim Thomas. There are so many different aspects of this series to look for, and that's before we even get to the actual play or matchups.
Let's just say it. This series is LOADED with talent. Its a show of Pedigree equal to an NHL version of the Westminster Dog Show. Only differences are the audience that will be watching and the way in which 'Best in Show' will be determined. A quick glance at the Penguins has to scare Bruins fans- Crosby, Malkin, Iginla, three former Hart Trophy Winners (when do you ever face a team that has 3 MVPs in any sport?), great talent on defense as well - with a puck moving beast like Kris Letang, a Norris Trophy Finalist this year. But the B's are loaded too, and the Pens side has to also be worried. Although top end talent and pizzazz clearly favors Pittsburgh, Boston has a deeper team and a much more proven goaltender in Tuukka Rask. The Bs can send out the aforementioned Jagr a surefire Hall of Famer in his own right, Zdeno Chara a Hall of Fame type who is one of the best defencemen of his generation (a Norris Trophy Winner himself), possibly the best two way player in the game Patrice Bergeron (give him another Selke please), and that's before you look at the Bruins top line of Krejci, Lucic & Horton which is a combined +32 (leading any line of the playoffs). To presume this series is going to be one sided either way is a far-fetched idea. This match-up was almost expected, as not only were many people picking both of these teams to make it this far (or farther) during the pre-season and earlier on in the year, but the Bruins and Penguins are the last two Stanley Cup winners to come out of the East (shockingly the Western Conference Finals also has such an occurrence with the Kings and Blackhawks). Little things are going to sway this series in a big way.
Lets do a quick breakdown of advantages each team has:
Offense: Big Edge Pittsburgh - Sure the Bruins have a very good first line, and a deep team all the way down to their blue-collar yet effective fourth line, but the offensive juggernaut of Pittsburgh is just scary. Again, Crosby, Malkin, Iginla....yes the Bruins are talented, but not THAT talented. The Pens led the league in scoring during the regular season with 3.38 goals per game (the Bruins were tied for 13th at 2.65), and have now upped that drastically to an insane 4.27 per game (the Bruins are a VERY good 3.17 good for second). Pittsburgh is blowing by defenses and annihilating nets, sometimes you wonder if there is an opposing goaltender in there. Scary, scary, scary offense.
Defense: Edge Boston - Although some people may feel differently, this has to be an edge for Boston. Chara is by far the best defensive player in the series when it comes to shut-down impact. His pairing mate Dennis Seidenberg is an underrated elite defender in his own right. Sure the Pens can talk about Letang being a Norris Finalist and the best offensive defensemen in the league but the Bruins can counter with Bergeron for the Selke and being the best defensive forward. This also doesn't even take into account the impact the youngsters Krug and Bartkowski are having. The Bs are tied for sixth in the postseason with 2.33 goals against per game while the Penguins are eighth with 2.55. In the regular season there was even a more stark contrast with the Bruins being third with 2.21 and Pitt being 12th with 2.48. The edge is there, and the checkmark goes in the box next to the B.
Goaltending: Edge Boston - Yes Vokoun's .941 save % is amazing, but it's too small of a sample size with too little actual pressure on him to make it a big player in this category (its not like he's been standing on his head). No matter how well he is playing, it is never good to be using your second goalie. There is a lot to be said for stability in net, something Rask provides with relative ease. At times it seems Rask is not as good as he actually is. Why? Because he makes goaltending look so easy. His play style is an exact contrast to Tim Thomas, but with more similar results than one would think. Rask was a solid .929 save % in the regular season, and boasts an almost IDENTICAL .928 save % in the postseason. Again stability through consistency - which in net can mean the difference.
Coaching: Slight Edge Boston - This is probably the closest category. Claude Julien and Dan Bylsma are both severely underrated coaches. Both own a Jack Adams Award, both own a Stanley Cup victory. Claude has just been doing it for longer. Julien has a career 938 points and seven playoff appearances to Bylsma's 427 and four appearances, respectively. Claude has coached in more than one place, and in many ways with more than one core. Yes, Bylsma has a better winning percentage and has more success compared to time coaching but he also has been blessed with more talent on average than Claude has coached. You don't look at Erik Spoelstra or Joe Girardi (or even Torts) as a major reason for their teams success, so why should we for Bylsma?
Special Teams: Edge Pittsburgh - Both teams have good special teams but again the offensive juggernaut/scoring ability of the Pittsburgh power-play sways the pendulum in their direction. Pittsburgh leads the postseason with a PP % of 28.3 while the Bruins are fifth with a highly respectable 21.9%. There was more contrast in the regular season as Pitt was second in the league with a 24.7% and the Bruins were 26th with 14.8%. The penalty kill was a Boston strength in the regular season where they were fourth in the league at 87.1% while the Penguins were a pedestrian 25th in the league at 79.6%, however in the postseason the trends have changed. Pittsburgh is a stout 89.7% penalty kill (good for third) while the Bruins have faltered somewhat with an 81.1%, good for eighth.
Chris O's Keys to the Series - For Boston its to play rough and physical while avoiding penalties. The B's cannot let the Pens power-play run-a-muck in the series. Tuukka needs to be steady and solid, but contrary to popular belief does not need to stand on his head. The Bruins need to play smart and make sure they do not miss any defensive assignments. Slowing the game down and grinding in the corners would benefit the Bs greatly. For Pittsburgh, they need to open the game up as much as possible. Their talent can kill in the open ice. The Penguins also need to protect Vokoun, for them the best defense should be a good offense and limiting Boston's scoring opportunities. Sure this sounds easy but it may not be. The Pens will also have to make sure they can match the physical intensity of the Bruins. Holding on to the puck is going to be a key for BOTH TEAMS in the series (does that mean Jagr is a key?!?!?)
Prediction? Not giving a team, but simply this. This series is going at least six, and expect the team that wins the first game to go on to win the series....GAME ON