5 Keys for Eastern Conference Finals

5 Keys for Eastern Conference Finals
May 31, 2013, 11:45 pm
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(USA Today Sports Images)

PITTSBURGH -- The Bruins barely escaped the Toronto Maple Leafs after taking them a little too lightly after they’d initially gained the upper hand in the series, and seemed to find their footing in a five-game dispatching of a New York Rangers hockey club that appeared to be fighting to find their inspiration under head coach John Tortorella.

Each of those playoff rounds held their ups and downs, including a historic Game 7 comeback against the Leafs and the “Butt Stumble” heard 'round the Big Apple, but they won’t hold a candle to an Eastern Conference Finals match against the vaunted Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Bruins know they’re in for the biggest challenge of their entire season, and it’s conceivable the Eastern Conference Final could be even more challenging for Boston than a potential Stanley Cup Final would be. But the Bruins also might be enjoying playing the underdog card while foisting as much pressure on the Penguins as possible prior to a series they have a legitimate chance of taking provided they play up to their level.

“That’s how it goes sometimes,” said Brad Marchand. “Obviously, they are the favorites. They have some guys that are very skilled and very talented, and they have the two best players in the world . . . and then you add Iginla. And their third and fourth lines are playing so well right now.

“We’re in over our heads. We’ve got a big job to do. We’re all excited to try it out and see how it goes. Things can happen in hockey, and you can get some good bounces. Hopefully we get some of those.”

Marchand and the rest of the Bruins players are certainly every bit as good as they are lucky, but here are five keys to the Eastern Conference Final showdown against the high-powered Penguins:

1) STAY OUT OF THE BOX, AND STAY AWAY FROM THE PITTSBURGH POWER PLAY - The Penguins averaged five power plays per game during the second round series against the Ottawa Senators, and the Bruins are averaging more than nine penalty minutes per game during the playoffs. That’s a bad combination when the Penguins are leading all Stanley Cup playoff teams with a 28.3 success rate that’s produced 13 PP goals in just 12 games. It’s no wonder why their PP is successful as the Penguins can trot out a pair of power play units comprised of All-Star level talent, and feature a handful of the best offensive players still left in the postseason. Surprisingly the Bruins PK has been middle of the road during the playoffs after being one of the NHL’s best during the regular season, so they can’t rely on their PK units to carry the day. That means the Bruins need to stay out of the penalty box, stay disciplined and try to walk the line between physically intense and hot-headed that’s always proved to be a challenge for them in hotly contested playoff series. It will be easier said than done with one of the NHL’s most hated men, Matt Cooke, skating for the Penguins, but the Bruins need to avoid a special teams-a-palooza with Pittsburgh at all costs.

2) DIVVY UP THE DEFENSIVE STOPPERS – The Pittsburgh Penguins have very clearly opted to split up their two biggest offensive talents, and have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin centering their top lines. So that makes it easy for the Bruins to follow suit and do the very same thing with their top drawer defensive talent in the classic battle between a high-powered offensive hockey club and a gritty, intense, defensive hockey team. Zdeno Chara has historically matched up defensively with whatever line Malkin has skated with in the past, and sticking a Chara/Dennis Seidenberg pairing on Malkin/James Neal/Jarome Iginla makes all the sense in the world. The Malkin line is bigger, stronger and a little slower than Sidney Crosby’s forward line, and that is better for the bigger, stronger, slower Chara/Seidenberg shutdown pair. Meanwhile Patrice Bergeron can be locked up with Crosby’s line in a marquee matchup of the best player in the world vs. the NHL’s best defensive forward. Bergeron and Marchand have the speed, grit and defensively ability to hang with Crosby, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, but it remains to be seen if Jaromir Jagr can also keep up with that pace. If he can’t then it might be up to Tyler Seguin to switch back onto the right wing spot he skated alongside Bergeron and Marchand most of the season. But either way splitting up defensive duties between Bergeron and Chara ensures that one of their biggest defensive stoppers will always be on the ice whenever one of Pittsburgh’s dynamic duo hops over the boards.

3) GRIND DOWN THE PENGUINS DEFENSE – Douglas Murray and Brooks Orpik are the only players on the Pittsburgh blueline that have above-average size for an NHL defenseman, and it’s clear the Penguins D corps is built for skating, moving pucks up the ice and attacking in the offensive zone. Expect to see a heavy, committed fore-check from the group of XXL Bruins forwards that can inflict punishment on the Pittsburgh defensemen and gradually slow them down as the series wears on. It’s the same philosophy that eventually slowed the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Finals, and it’s been incredibly effective for a Bruins teams that always seems to push series to a long seven-game set that serves them well. It should be a normal occurrence in the series to see Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton wallpapering Kris Letang to the boards in the corner if he attempts to retrieve pucks as Boston is setting up their fore-check. This plan won’t pay dividends right away, but it tends to bear fruit in a series that’s expected to go six or seven games. For a physical, intimidating hockey club like the Bruins, it’s really their best chance to win a playoff series against a faster, more skilled opponent.

4) GET INTO VOKOUN’S KITCHEN – Sure, Tomas Vokoun has posted a 1.85 goals against average and a .941 save percentage along with a 6-1 record during the playoffs, and he has always been a classic “good goalie on a bad team” in the past. But the 36-year-old has never been this deep into the playoffs before after a couple of first round exits with the Nashville Predators more than five years ago, and has a reputation as a streaky netminder capable of going through hot streaks and slumps. He’s also a goaltender prone to giving up rebounds, and that’s something the Isles and Ottawa Senators didn’t do a good enough job of exposing in the first couple of playoff rounds. Vokoun will have to prove he’s capable of standing tall against a bigger, stronger, more determined group of Bruins players that did a good job of getting shots, traffic and organized chaos in and around Henrik Lundqvist in the second round. The Czech goaltender has been a savior thus far, but I’m not sure anybody thinks of Tomas Vokoun as a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender.

5) ONE MORE RIDE FOR THE JAGR – While it’s readily apparent that both the David Krejci line and the Bergeron line are operating at maximum efficiency, there is every chance they’ll be cancelled out by the top two forward lines for the Penguins. But one player that’s been quiet through the first two rounds is due for a breakout, and how poetic would it be for 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr to explode offensively against the Penguins team that considers him one of their greatest players of all time. Jagr’s name and likeness adorn the Pens home dressing room at the CONSOL Energy Center as one of the key Pittsburgh players that helped them win their first two Stanley Cups, and it’s the team the future Hall of Famer will always be most associated with. But Jagr is with the Bruins now, and he went through the first two playoff rounds without any goals and without a substantial impact on the power play. With the Bruins unable to realistically expect Torey Krug to continue producing offensively at the clip he did against the New York Rangers, it comes down to offensive players like Jagr and the 21-year-old Tyler to finally start producing. Jagr puts himself in the proper places to score and can still draw a lot of defensive attention when the puck is on his stick, but he needs to produce goals rather than close calls. If that can happen for the Black and Gold, then they’ve got a chance to keep pace with a Penguins club averaging 4.27 goals per game in the playoffs.

My prediction: The Pittsburgh Penguins will defeat the Bruins in seven games, and simply have too much firepower, depth and talent after loading up at the NHL trade deadline. But the fact I'm predicting a seven game series means it could go either way depending on injuries either club sustains during a hard-fought Eastern Conference Final.