PITTSBURGH – One thing is for certain about the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pittsburgh Penguins will be forced to earn it if they hope to return to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Bruins and Penguins locking up for their first conference final showdown in 20 years is an intriguing contrast because it pits strength (intense, punishing defensive team) vs. strength (high-powered, skilled offensive team), and will boast some of the most fascinating storylines in any playoff series. The B’s/Pens series will also include many of the marquee match-ups befitting a playoff series between the two most seasoned, experienced, deep, talented teams in the East.
Bergeron vs. Sid the Kid.
Chara vs. Malkin.
Jarome Iginla vs. a Bruins fan base he gave the stiff arm to.
Matt Cooke vs. the rest of the civilized NHL world.
The list goes on and on.
“With Pittsburgh, you’ve got to shutdown more than a few players. I’m going to say even more than three and four [players],” said Claude Julien. “They come in bunches. I think that’s the respect that you have to have for [the Penguins], knowing every time you’re on the ice it’s not going to be an easy shift.
“If you don’t pay attention to your game defensively, it’s going to end up costing you. But if you do [pay attention to defense], you may end up in some good offensive opportunities. Our offense thrives on how good a defense we play. When we turn pucks over, that’s when we become dangerous.”
With the Bruins coach talking about his team being dangerous, it’s pretty clear Boston and Pittsburgh aren’t that far apart to start the series.
The Eastern Conference Finals shouldn’t be a short series as some have boldly predicted entering this weekend’s series opener at the CONSOL Energy Center. But it’s also fairly self-evident the Black and Gold will need to play mistake-free hockey at their highest level to neutralize a confident Pittsburgh team cranking 4.27 goals per game during an impressive playoff body of work.
It’s no joke when the Penguins can roll out a pair of fourth line guys that have been 30-goal scorers in the NHL (Jussi Jokinen and Brenden Morrow), and put together two different power play units full of All-Star caliber players. The Bruins realize the challenge of Pittsburgh’s depth, and have a healthy respect for the level of talent on the Penguins roster while holding plenty of self-respect for their own deep roster.
But, as Dennis Leary says, it’s about grit rather than glitz when it comes to the Bruins.
Things like a strong fore-check and defensive layers certainly aren’t sexy puck topics, but they are unerringly effective for winning hockey during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“[The Penguins] are a team that wants the puck, and wants to play in the offensive zone,” said Patrice Bergeron. “I think the fore-check is one of the keys. We need to establish that and keep the puck in there, and cause some pressure so they can’t make all of the plays that they want to.
“Sometimes the best defense is to keep the puck on offense.”
One of the big keys to the series will be Bergeron’s effectiveness locking up with Sidney Crosby, and showing him exactly why there’s already a Selke Trophy on his mantle – and another one potentially on the way in a few weeks.
But one should expect to see a few different things from the Bruins as they put together a game plan designed to slow down the Penguins, and discourage Pittsburgh at every possible turn.
It’s something both the Islanders and Senators weren’t able to do in the first two rounds, but it’s also a task the Bruins are much more well-equipped to pull off over a long, punishing seven game playoff series.
The Bruins have six players among the NHL’s top 30 in registered hits during the playoffs, and the Penguins only have one with Matt Cooke ranking sixth with 46 hits in 12 postseason games. That’s a pretty fair illustration of the disparity in physicality that waits when Boston and Pittsburgh get it on for Game 1 on Saturday night, and one big area where the Bruins can exert their will.
Outside of the hulking Douglas Murray and the intense Brooks Orpik, the Pittsburgh defensemen corps is comprised of average-sized blueliners built for skating, puck-moving and offense. One of the main priorities for the Bruins is to get big bodies like Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton and Shawn Thornton in on an unrelenting fore-check, and punish the Penguins blueliners every time they touch the puck with body check after body check.
It’s the exact philosophy that ultimately worked against the speedy, high-powered Vancouver Canucks attack in the Stanley Cup Finals. Vancouver defenseman Dan Hamhuis was knocked out early in the series after a collision with Milan Lucic, and Boston’s suffocating fore-check was able to slow down and ultimately frustrate the Canucks D-men by pounding them into submission.
There was plenty of attention paid to Alex Burrows biting Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand using one of the Sedins like a boxing speed-bag during those Cup Finals, and rightfully so.
But it was Boston’s work in the trenches against Vancouver that ultimately paid off in a seven game series, and will need to play out once again versus an accomplished group of offensive players in Pittsburgh.
If Lucic and Horton can put a few licks on Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Matti Niskanen early and often in the series, the Bruins believe that kind of hard, clean, physical playoff hockey will ultimately pay dividends.
It might just be the only way to slow down the NHL’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters.
“It’s very big. Hopefully over the course of a seven game series we can really wear a team down, and they start looking over their shoulder a little bit,” said Brad Marchand. “If they can hear footsteps, especially when you’ve got guys like [Horton] and Looch barreling down on you, it’s tough to take those kinds of beatings for that long. We all have to chip in and play physical, and hopefully start to slow them down a little bit. They have so much speed and skill…the only way to slow them down is to be really physical.”
That’s pretty simply how things stack up between the two best teams in the Eastern Conference starting this weekend.
The Penguins want a special teams' fiesta and a hockey skills challenge more fit for the Saturday of NHL All-Star weekend, and the Bruins want a blood-and-guts playoff series that screams out Old Time Hockey.
It will ultimately be somewhere in between each of those scenarios. Instead both Boston and Pittsburgh will get their chances to seize control of the playoff series that will yield numerous twists and turns before it’s all over, and give one lucky team another chance to hoist the Cup.