While we’re still waiting on both of the teams for the Western Conference Final to be decided, the Eastern Conference Final matchup was set in stone on Saturday and I figured now is as good a time as any to breakdown my thoughts on the series that many had predicted and hoped for since as early as the season opener. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins were far and away the best teams in the East this year (just ignore the fact that Montreal managed to squeak out the division title, they were overrated from the outset) and that should be enough to give us one hell of a series. Before moving on to my series prediction, let’s take a look at each team individually, how they got here, and other bits of information.
Pittsburgh comes into the series as the heavy favorites in large part due being the regular season Eastern Conference champions and the immense star power in their lineup, lead by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, both of whom are in the midst of dominant playoff performances. Beyond those two there is a ton of additional offense provided up front from the likes of Jarome Iginla, James Neal, Pascal Dupuis, and Chris Kunitz, while defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin also chip in considerably. They even have additional offensive depth available in the form of Tyler Kennedy, Brenden Morrow, and Jussi Jokinen. It’s a formidable group that no one has been able to stop to this point.
The Penguins started the playoffs having a little bit of trouble against the Islanders due to the poor goaltending provided by Marc-Andre Fleury, but ever since Tomas Vokoun has taken over it’s been fairly smooth sailing. Pittsburgh hasn’t looked their best at times, but even running at around 75% is good enough to dismantle the majority of the teams in the Eastern Conference. Case in point, the Senators. Despite outplaying Pittsburgh for long stretches at various points in the series, they simply couldn’t take down the giant when all Pittsburgh needed was a few more shots from their stars to open the floodgates.
Even though Pittsburgh has easily dispatched their opponents to this point and have yet to really play their best hockey, there is reason to think they may have trouble with Boston. Pittsburgh hasn’t been very strong defensively in these playoffs and Boston has more firepower throughout their lineup than anyone else the Penguins have faced to this point. That could spell trouble, especially if their defensemen allow the Bruins forwards anywhere near Vokoun, who has had noticeable trouble with his rebound control at times. It’s also worth pointing out that Pittsburgh hasn’t really faced a complete, top-to-bottom team such as the Bruins yet in these playoffs. How will they react when faced with such stiff competition and things don’t go as smoothly as before?
Boston is the obvious underdog in this series, but they shouldn’t be counted out or taken lightly at all. Through the opening two months of the season they were a better team than the Penguins and if not for a mediocre finish, they likely would have finished only a few points behind them in the standings. The Bruins don’t have any elite offensive weapons, but they do have a ton of excellent contributors, with David Krejci leading the way this post-season, playing at a level beyond what many would have anticipated. Krejci actually leads the point scoring race at this point, outpacing all of the high-end stars on Pittsburgh. He’s joined by a wide array of forward talent, notably his linemates Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton, as well as Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. There’s also Tyler Seguin and Jaromir Jagr, both of whom have been disappointing thus far, but still need to be considered as dangerous.
On defense the Bruins have considerable depth, led by all-star Zdeno Chara, underrated Dennis Seidenberg, and physical Johnny Boychuk. They also have a pair of great youngsters in Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug, the latter of which was a revelation against the Rangers. In goal they’re led by the always dependable Tuukka Rask, one of the top goaltenders in the East.
It’s a superb lineup throughout that didn’t seem to know what it was doing at times against the Maple Leafs in the opening round, even going so far as to almost blow the series completely. But we all know what happened when the chips were down and since then the Bruins have been playing exactly like they’re supposed to, brushing aside the Rangers with ease.
However, the Bruins haven’t faced anything like these Penguins, not even when they marched all the way to the Stanley Cup two years ago. Thus far in the playoffs this year they’ve only had to deal with a strong Maple Leafs offense that lacked any real high-end talent and a non-existent Rangers offense full of under-performing players. Pittsburgh’s offense is firing on all cylinders and chock full of game breaking talent that Boston will be hard pressed to stop unless they get outstanding goaltending from Rask (who has only been excellent to this point) and even better team defense. The Bruins certainly can’t afford to lapse back into the performance we saw in April and much of the series against Toronto, but if they can’t somehow withstand Pittsburgh’s offensive onslaught, they have the tools to pull off an upset.
This is going to be a very close, hard-fought series that could really go any way. There’s going to be some serious levels of hate build up in this series rather quickly and it has the potential to be one of the best playoff matchups in recent years. In the end, I think home ice advantage for the Penguins is especially important this time around and that may turn out to be all the Pittsburgh needs to inch past the Bruins.
Penguins in 7.