PITTSBURGH It seems like it just might end up this way this season, doesnt it?
With the Bruins brimming with confidence and poise after winning a Stanley Cup, and with the Penguins regaining the face of the NHL in Sidney Crosby, the Bs and Pens sit atop the Eastern Conference two months into the regular season.
It was Crosbys concussion and Evgeni Malkins knee issues that opened the door in the East for the Bruins to run roughshod over the rest of the field en route to the Cup Finals last season. Now Pittsburgh stands as the only team between Boston and the top spot in the East, and it's not difficult to see that playing out again in the postseason.
Clearly its still early in the season with nearly 60 games still left to play, but everyone should be allowed to get a little giddy when the top two teams in the conference square off for bragging rights. That will be on the line for both squads at CONSOL Energy Center Monday night, and a game like that should bring out every lastounce ofthe best both hockey clubs have to offer.
The players in the Bs dressing room are certainlyaware.
Its going to be a great challenge for us. The Penguins are playing extremely well. They have their best player back Sidney Crosby, said Chris Kelly. He seems like he hasnt missed a beat. It will be an exciting game for us.
The Penguins have three points on the Bruins heading into Monday, but the Bs also hold three games in hand against the conference leaders. The two could play seesaw all season among the top spots now that the Bruins have battled their way back to exalted NHL status, but theres a great importance to this epic Eastern Conference tilt.
The Bruins no longer measure themselves against a tomato can Toronto team they routinely dominate. Teams like Montreal and Buffalo aremerely pretenders until they prove they can withstand Boston's physicality and toughness.Pittsburgh is the bar right now, and Boston presents matchup problems to the Penguins with their depth, discipline, toughness and work ethic.But Pittsburgh is alsoone of the few teams that can match the Bs strength down the middle with Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal anchoring the Pens top three forward lines. That means Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Chris Kelly better come prepared with a willingness to put their game faces on and get a little grime under their fingernails.
When youve got Staal playing on that third line it says a lot about their depth, said Claude Julien. Theyre a pretty good team. Their coach has done a good job of balancing those lines to separate Crosby and Malkin because it certainly makes it tougher on other teams when they cant just shut down the one line.
Theyve got some good balance and skill level. Theyre the same team as ours where theyve had different guys step up to do the job for them. Im looking forward to it and Im exciting for Monday night. It should be a real interesting game.
The Penguins are well-coached by Dan Bylsmas staff as indicatedby the B's coach,and they boast skilled puck-moving defensemen and a goaltender with lottery pick pedigree in Marc-Andre Fleury. In other words theyre a formidable match for the Black and Gold now that Sid the Kid is picking up right where he left off last season.
The Bruins have been the unquestioned favorite in thevasty majority ofgames this season as the Stanley Cup champs. But they arrive in Pitt with something to prove to the one team that could become their arch-nemesis this spring, and has been in the past.
The Monday night game allows both teams a chance to make a statement and bloody the first nose, so to speak, in whats been an incredibly compelling rivalry over the last few seasons. Things ramped up following Matt Cookes blindside cheap shot on Marc Savard two years ago, and theres no reason to think the animus has dissipated in any way, shape or form.
That should be just what the Bruins need where they might normally be allowingtheir attention spans towander after astrong five week showingof hockey prowess.
Itll be an interesting game. Theyre a team thats playing extremely well and Sidney is back in the lineup, said Julien. We know the challenge it represents. Its a good thing for us where were at with our team. Itll give us one of the best possible challenges we could have right now.
Thats what we need right now. Its a good test. Everything has been going pretty smoothly and in order for us to stay focused we need a good test like that.
Something will have to give between the two well-rounded hockey clubs. The Bruins have won three in a row and 13 out of their last 14 games with many of them in the kind of dominant fashion that scream out "elite team." The Penguins have won two in a row and have lost only one game in regulation on home ice in 11 attempts this season for an 8-1-2 record at the "new Igloo."
We've got the right mind set going into every game right now. I feel like we're playing the same way every game and we're being super consistent, said Joe Corvo. If we don't find consistency at some point in the game, then it gets corrected.
I think the Penguins are obviously a good test. They're in first place, so it'll be an exciting game.
The Penguins played amazingly good hockey over the first six weeks without their franchise center, and now theyve watched Crosby put up 12 points and play 19 minutes a night in his first seven games back. Thats storybook stuff for Pittsburgh, and Sids return gives the Penguins their own special brand of confidence headed into the Black and Goldshowdown.
The Pens wont be wide-eyed and intimidated like the Leafs continue to be when facing down the champs, but thats what makes it a marquee mid-season game.
We know what we have here in this dressing room, said David Krejci. We just want to get up there on Monday, get a win and then get first in the conference."
First place in the conference wont come to the Bruins with a win on Monday, but it wont shock anybody if the path to this years Stanley Cup goes right through Pittsburgh.
That roadway opens up tomorrow night for both teams, and it should be a heck of a battle.