NHL playoffs: Bruins-Penguins Eastern Conference Finals notes
Before the puck drops in Pittsburgh for Game 1 of the Bruins-Penguins Eastern Conference Finals at 8 p.m. on Saturday night, here are a few nuggets that could help determine the result:
• Rust alert: At a time of year when teams can always use an extra day or two off for the sake of allowing players to heal their wounds, the Penguins will have gone seven days without playing before opening night against the Bruins, who will have gone six. Game 2 is scheduled for Monday night (8 p.m. in Pittsburgh) before the series shifts to Boston for Game 3 next Wednesday (8 p.m.) and Game 4 on Friday (8 p.m.).
• Messin' with the Kid: Sidney Crosby hasn't been affected at all by his facial injury, has he? Well, on one hand, he's returned to the Penguins' lineup with a vengeance, amassing 15 points in 11 games. But on the other, he's been cautious away from the puck, and not nearly as engaged as he usually is during the regular season. Crosby is one of just two Pittsburgh regulars -- Brendan Morrow is the other -- who has a minus rating in the playoffs. OK it's just -1, but Crosby was +26 during the regular season. Teams seem more willing to hit and engage him over the course of a series than they do during regular season tilts. The Flyers effectively set the blueprint for how to do this during Pittsburgh's first-round exit last spring, countering Crosby's line back up the ice with odd-man rushes and holding him to -3. Boston is big enough and scrappy enough to try similar tactics this year.
• Bump and grind: During the first two rounds, Boston laid more hits (474) on its opponents than the Penguins did on theirs (319), although the Bruins played in 12 games to Pittsburgh's 11. The B's are bigger than the Pens and will have to bump them early, often, and as much as possible to disrupt their flow. While each team has surrendered 28 goals in the playoffs, Pittsburgh has scored 47 compared 38 for Boston. That's firepower the Bruins simply will not be able to match. Essentially, the slower the pace of the series, the better Boston's chances of staying competitive. Yet a physical series could actually help the Penguins if a lot of penalties are called. Pittsburgh has 16 specialty-teams goals to eight for Boston, including a 13-7 edge on the power play.
• Spreading the wealth: Pittsburgh has gotten game-winning goals from eight different players in its eight wins, and Crosby and Jarome Iginla are not among them, though Crosby did set up linemate Chris Kunitz for a key overtime goal against the Islanders in the first round. Nathan Horton has two gamers for Boston. That's nothing new for him. In Boston's Cup-winning season of 2011, Horton scored the only goal in the Bruins' nailbiter 1-0 win in Game 7 of the Eastern final against Tampa Bay.
• Feeling dotty: As you would expect, the Bruins have been the best among the 16 postseason teams at winning face-offs (57.5 percent). Boston also led the league during the regular season with a success rate of 56.4 percent, while Pittsburgh was seventh at 51.5 percent and is now almost squarely in the middle at 50.1: ranked eighth. Patrice Bergeron, Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley are all above 63 percent in the postseason. Ironically, David Krejci is one of the few Bruins with a losing record at the dot so far. Krejci, the leading scorer in the playoffs with 17 points, chimes in at 46.7 percent. He was ranked 15th in league, at 55.2 percent during the regular season.
• A question of balance: Through two rounds, 21 different players have recorded points for Pittsburgh, compared to 19 for Boston. Chris Kelly is the lone Bruins forward who has played in all 12 of his team's games without being credited with a goal or an assist. Blueliner Andrew Ference was blanked in the four games he played. For Pittsburgh, defensemen Deryk Engelland and Simon Despres are pointless in four and three games respectively.
• Going fourth: The play of Boston's fourth line has been outstanding during the playoffs so far. Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton have combined for 13 points and a +13 rating, averaging nearly 15 shifts a game. Bruins coach Claude Julien is set up front, but may have some fortunate yet tough decisions to make on his backline if all of his defensemen are healthy. What to do with rookies Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton and Matt Bartkowski when veterans Ference, Dennis Seidenberg and Wade Redden are ready to go?
• Starting from scratch: Penguins bench boss Dan Bylsma has so far listed veterans Tyler Kennedy, Brendan Morrow, Tanner Glass and Jussi Jokinen as healthy scratches for at least one playoff game. Morrow's benching in Game 4 against Ottawa was the first of his 13-year career. He bounced back with a goal two nights later in the series-deciding fifth game.
• The goal standard: Pittsburgh's goalie situation could be the only thing that keeps the Pens from the Cup. Marc-Andre Fleury's shortcomings cost them a series last spring and this year he played his way back onto the bench in the opening round vs. the Islanders. Tomas Vokoun, a 36-year-old veteran with a 3-8 lifetime playoff record before this season, is now the starter. His numbers are much better than Fleury's so far in 2013: (6-1; 1.85 GAA; .948 save pct. as opposed to 2-2; 3.40; .891), but Fleury has been Bylsma's meal ticket, with a ring on his resume. At what point, if at all, does the coach reinstall his former No. 1 goalie as the playoff starter?
• Jeer leaders: There's been some talk about how much these two teams don't like each other, but the fans in each city will have their own special targets. So, how badly will Jaromir Jagr be booed in Pittsburgh? How loudly will Jarome Iginla be booed in Boston? Both future Hall-of Famers could have chosen to play for the other side. When Jagr came back to the NHL in 2011 from a three-year stint with Avangard Omsk of the KHL, most people assumed that the free-agent forward would return to Pittsburgh, where he won two Stanley Cups and once had a 149-point season. Instead, he initially signed with rival Philadelphia before moving on to Dallas in 2012 and then Boston this year, giving him six teams for his career. (Don't forget the Capitals and Rangers). Jagr ended up with the Bruins because GM Peter Chiarelli thought he had a deal to acquire Iginla from Calgary at the trade deadline only to have the lifetime Flame jilt him by choosing to go to the Penguins instead. It's easy to imagine that Bruins fans feel more strongly about Iginla than Pens fans do about Jagr.