Stanley Cup Playoffs: Eastern Conference Finals, Bruins vs Penguins Preview
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It’s the match up that everyone had hoped for: Penguins vs Bruins. The two teams widely considered to be the best of the Eastern Conference are now meeting in the Conference Finals. There are many story lines that come along with this series. There’s the incident from 2010 in which Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke ended Boston center Marc Savard’s career with an elbow to the head, the Jarome Iginla trade in which Iginla turned down a trade to the Bruins and opted to go to Pittsburgh instead, the Brendan Morrow trade in which, like Iginla, Morrow turned down a trade to Boston and elected to be dealt to the Penguins instead, the little known tidbit that the Bruins originally wanted now Penguins General Manager Ray Shero to be their GM, but eventually hired Peter Chiarelli after negotiations with Shero broke down and he signed a contract in Pittsburgh, and there’s the everlasting incident in which Penguins forward Ulf Samuelsson ended Cam Neely’s career in 1991.
However, this series ultimately will have nothing to do with any of the aforementioned story lines. This series will come down to whether or not the Bruins can prevent the Penguins’ high powered offense from running away with this series, and whether the Bruins can keep up with the offense the Penguins do generate.
For the Bruins, forwards who have struggled mightily need to step up their game now more than ever before. Tyler Seguin is at the top of the list of players who need to start producing. It appears that he began to come around at the end of the series against the Rangers, scoring a goal in Game Four, but he still has just two points in the playoffs this year. Seguin put up good numbers against the Penguins this season, though, scoring three goals in three games.
The Bruins power play, which was abysmal to say the least during the regular season, has really come alive as of late. Rookie defenseman Torey Krug has brought a new element to the Bruins man advantage, with his strong skating, ability to move the puck, and great shot. Krug scored four goals in in five games against the Rangers in the last series, becoming the first NHL player ever to score four goals in his first five playoff games.
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma has spoken very highly of Krug, going as far as to call him the second coming of Paul Coffey. The trouble with Krug for the Penguins, however, is their lack of experience against him, making it difficult for them to game plan for the young defenseman.
“In preparation and looking at their team, I’ve looked back at things from not only this year, but last year — how they play, tendencies, face-offs — so you think you have a good feeling about the Boston Bruins and their team and how they play and players on the team, but that’s the one element you don’t have much of an idea of at all”, Bylsma said. “We’ve watched him play, we’ve watched the tape, but he adds an element to the team that really hasn’t been an element for the Boston Bruins over the last couple of years, even going back to their Stanley Cup year.
“They’ve won a lot of hockey games and that hasn’t really been an element, so you can watch him, you can do video tape on him, but the element for him skating for his team in the neutral zone that he’s added the last series, him at the blue line, his mobility across the blue line, his shot, that’s something we haven’t quite seen. [He’s] really kind of a variable we have to insert with our video and compare him to other players and what other players do for teams, but it’s going to be the first time we see him really on the ice when we get to Game One.”
The play of Krug and fellow rookie Matt Bartkowski will create a very difficult decision for Bruins coach Claude Julien when Andrew Ference is able to return to the lineup. However, Ference has still not been cleared to play in games, despite practicing with the team for the past few days.
“…With (Andrew) Ference, if they’ve given me the OK with him, then I need to consider that”, Julien said. “Sometimes, you can only make those decisions the night before or game day.”
Keys To The Series:
The key to this series for the Bruins will not only be whether they can keep the Pittsburgh offense as quiet as possible, but whether they can lure the Penguins into playing a run-and-gun game. If the Bruins can do that, the Penguins will become sloppy in their own end, leading to scoring chances for the Bruins.
When you look back at the first round series between the Penguins and the Islanders, you notice that, in multiple games, the Islanders were able to throw the Penguins off of their game by hitting them every time they touched the puck, letting the Penguins play a run-and-gun style, and by having a ferocious forecheck. The forecheck will be they key factor in this series for the Bruins. The Islanders were able to take the Penguins to six games by sending two forwards on the puck in the offensive zone. This caused the Penguins to run around in their own end, panic, and play very sloppy hockey. While the Bruins need to be as good defensively as they’ve ever been, they also can’t be so defensive that they neglect to play offense. If the Bruins can open up their system just a little bit, and take a few tricks from Jack Capuano’s playbook, they will create opportunities to take advantage of a Pittsburgh defense that is fairly weak.
The other key to this series is goaltending. The Bruins will need Tuukka Rask to play at his best this series. As everybody already knows, the Pittsburgh offense has firepower that the NHL hasn’t seen since the days of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty, and if Rask isn’t at the very top of his game, the Bruins will have extreme difficulty winning this series. This is the first time in his career that Rask has been past the Conference Semi Finals, and this is where he can create his legacy, as seen with the heroics of Tim Thomas in 2011, and the emergence of Jonathan Quick as an elite goalie in 2012. If Rask plays his best he will give the Bruins a very good chance at beating the Penguins. If Rask elevates his game and brings the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Finals, he will be the name that NHL fans remember from 2013.
Key Match Ups:
1) Patrice Bergeron vs Sidney Crosby
It’s widely considered that the Bruins will try to match Patrice Bergeron against Sidney Crosby. Crosby is the best player in the world, and while it may seem to make sense to match Zdeno Chara against Crosby, that just won’t work. Crosby has incredible speed, and is highly explosive when he starts skating. That would be a nightmare match up for the Bruins. Chara is one of the best defenseman in the league, but he does not have the ability to keep up with players who use speed to create their scoring chances. Because of this, it only makes sense to match Bergeron against Crosby. Bergeron is one of the best two way centers in the game, and matching him against Crosby would be best for the Bruins. Against a defensive center such as Bergeron, it is very possible that Crosby could be shut down as much as possible. It’s highly unlikely that the Bruins can shut down Crosby completely; the only way that happens is if Crosby ends up injured and unable to play in the rest of the series, but if Bergeron can keep him as quiet as possible, the Bruins will have a greater chance at winning.
2) Brad Marchand vs Sidney Crosby and James Neal
Every NHL fan knows Brad Marchand as a rat. They know him as the player on the Bruins who knows exactly how to get under his opponents’ skin. In this series, Marchand will have to do what he did against the Vancouver Canucks in 2011: little cheap shots after the whistle, chirping every time he’s on the ice, and everything else that made him so effective in the 2011 playoffs. Sidney Crosby loves to whine and complain, and the more Marchand aggravates him and gets under his skin, the more Crosby is going to be concerned with trying to get back at Marchand, and the less he is going to be concerned with putting up points. There is a good chance that, if Marchand aggravates Crosby enough, he will draw him into taking stupid penalties and putting the Bruins on the power play.
As for James Neal, he may not whine as much as Crosby, but he gets very aggravated very easily, and he also can be drawn into taking stupid penalties. Marchand needs to do the same thing to Neal as he should do to Crosby: chirp him as much as possible, and give him little shots after the whistle. If Marchand can get into their heads, the Penguins will have to rely more on their other forwards to perform.
3) Zdeno Chara vs Evgeni Malkin, Dennis Seidenberg vs Jarome Iginla
Assuming Zdeno Chara is not matched up with Sidney Crosby, as it should be, he will be matched up against Evgeni Malkin. This is a very favorable match up for the Bruins, as Chara has always had success when matched up against dangerous players that use their bigger bodies to their advantage. Malkin, who is bigger than Crosby, likes to hold the puck and use his body in his favor. This is the perfect match up for Chara, and if this is how the Bruins play it, Chara will be very effective in shutting him down. This match up, in my opinion, is an absolute must for the Bruins if they want to keep Malkin at bay. This match up would also allow Dennis Seidenberg to be matched up with Jarome Iginla, another good match up for the Bruins. Seidenberg was very effective last season in the playoffs against Alexander Ovechkin, as he effectively shut him down. If Chara can shut down Malkin, and Seidenberg can shut down Iginla, the Penguins will be in deep trouble.
4) Tuukka Rask vs Tomas Vokoun
As I stated, Tuukka Rask has to elevate his game for the Bruins to have a chance in this series. However, the same can be said for Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun hasn’t been challenged very much since replacing Marc-Andre Fleury in the East Quarterfinals against the Islanders. The Islanders had a strong forecheck, but they didn’t have the talent to really do much damage against Vokoun. In the Ottawa series, Vokoun was very rarely challenged, and the Senators appeared to be too exhausted to do any damage on offense. Vokoun gives up a great deal of rebounds, much like James Reimer did for Toronto, and if he can’t control the puck, the Bruins will be able to take advantage of and exploit this weakness. For both goalies, this is a chance to cement a legacy for themselves. If the Penguins beat the Bruins and win the Stanley Cup, Vokoun will be the name fans remember from the 2013 season. The same goes for Rask: if he takes the Bruins all the way to a Stanley Cup victory, he will be the name that everybody remembers.
5) Bruins Breakout vs Penguins Forecheck
This is one of the biggest areas of concern for the Bruins, presumably. The Penguins have a great deal of speed up front, and their forecheck could create serious issues for the Bruins defense, especially rookies Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug. However, if both of them can stay calm and play to their abilities, the Bruins will have a much easier time generating offense and keeping the puck out of their own end.
This is the first series that I am unable to make a solid prediction. If you read series previews from Boston media, you will see “Bruins in Six” and “Bruins in Seven”. However, due to the extreme firepower of the Penguins, and the Bruins’ defense, among many other factors, the only thing that I can predict is that, if the Bruins win this series, it will be a hard fought seven game series.
The puck drops at 8 p.m. tonight, so buckle up. This is going to be a fantastic series.