NHL playoffs: Eastern Conference Finals roundtable
With the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins on tap for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, SI.com writers Sarah Kwak, Brian Cazeneuve and Allan Muir offer their opinions on the strategy they expect to see, players to watch, and how they think this series will go.
Sarah Kwak: With Boston, two words: Torey Krug. Their rookie defenseman, one of three they had to call on after injuries ravaged their blueline, has been nothing short of a revelation, jumping in at all the right times it seemed, and scoring a league-high four goals in his first five playoff games. He's a big part of what has been the most surprising thing about Boston's postseason: the Bruins have gotten 13 goals from their defense, by far the most in the league. Pittsburgh ranks second with eight. As for the Penguins, I think the most impressive sign of their postseason is in net. Tomas Vokoun, who hadn't started a playoff game in six years, relieved Marc-André Fleury and now leads Eastern Conference goalies with a .941 save percentage. He's dropped just one game so far, and that was in double overtime.
Brian Cazeneuve: Boston's fourth line. It's the best in the league and has contributed significantly to the team's success. Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton killed the Rangers, and it's rare to see a fourth line, with all its movable parts, staying together for three years. The Penguins impressed me when they were able to bend without breaking as the Islanders challenged them in the first round. Remember, they didn't do that last year against the Flyers. When push came to shove in that series, they fell over like a team that couldn't play defense, survive scrums or stop goals.
Allan Muir: Yep, Vokoun for sure. It's not unprecedented for a team to call on its backup once or twice at this time of year, but to ride him, like the Pens appear ready to do? He's the story of these playoffs, whether everyone recognizes it yet or not. Not that he's been a brick wall back there. In fact, there have been times when he's looked shakier than Barney Fife -- but Vokoun continues to do the one thing that Fleury couldn't: stop the puck when the team needed him to. He's the modern-day Grant Fuhr. As for the Bruins, I'm just stunned that they're here. I watched every one of their games down the stretch and saw a team that looked vulnerable in so many areas, really everywhere except between the pipes. But suddenly Milan Lucic remembered that he's 6'-4" amd and 220 pounds and started playing like the beast that rampaged through the 2011 postseason, Brad Marchand reconnected with his inner Esa Tikkanen, and a defense that scored less than half-a-goal per game during the regular season has doubled that in the playoffs. It's been a surprising run.
Kwak: I predicted the Eastern Conference Final correctly! (Staff picks and crystal ball.) That proves I'm an expert analyst and hockey oracle! Or that I just happened to guess right! It's probably the latter. Well, since my guesses have gotten me this far, I'll stick with the Bruins here. Boston's built to outlast its opponents, to grind them down and earn wins. And though Pittsburgh has enviable talent and depth up front, the Penguins have yet to face a defense anywhere in the neighborhood of Boston's physical and intimidating group. The Pens scored at an insane clip of 4.27 goals per game. In the post-expansion era, only 14 teams have maintained a better pace over 10 or more games; Wayne Gretzky obviously played on five of them. But against the Bruins' defense corps, led by Zdeno Chara, expect that pace to go down.
Cazeneuve: As much as I like the way the Bruins are playing, they have simply never matched up well against the Penguins. They played two-and-a-half really good games against Pittsburgh this season, managed to keep the score down, avoided the type of track meets that the Penguins love, got the matchups they wanted for a lion's share of shifts, and still dropped all three games by a goal apiece. If the Bruins have an X-factor that may help them, their young defense has shown quite a bit of skill at moving the puck up the ice and beating opposing forechecks. Still, they haven't had to deal with Pittsburgh's just yet.
Muir: The layoff helps the Bruins in that it bought time for guys like Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference and Wade Redden to get closer to 100 percent. I doubt Redden plays -- Krug and his Don Sweeney impression have stolen that roster spot -- but it'll be nice for Claude Julien to have him as a ready option. But that doesn't impact the way I see this series going down. It's going to be quick and painful for the B's. I've received several helpful (though largely unprintable) suggestions from Bruins fans after my prediction of a five-game series win for Pittsburgh was published, but here's what those gentle readers don't understand: a series can be close and still be a blowout. I look back to the Windsor-London series in 2009 OHL Western Conference Final. Every game went to OT, but the Spits won the series by a decisive 4-1 margin. That's what I'm seeing here: a run of close, hard-fought games where Pittsburgh's superior firepower gives them a slight edge in the end.
Kwak: The Bruins have some experience in getting under the skin of opponents, of knocking players off their games. You may recall the 2011 Stanley Cup Final when Brad Marchard used Daniel Sedin's head as a speedbag and Milan Lucic stuck his fingers in Alexandre Burrows' face. Things could escalate quickly against Pittsburgh and James Neal, who is one of the most easily agitated players in the league. There is way more respect and friendliness between Pittsburgh and Boston than exists between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but that could all change pretty quickly.
Cazeneuve: Oh, bet your best cup of clam chowda that's the plan. Sarah's right about Marchand. He'll get a bunch of time against whichever Penguin appears to be going well and appears susceptible to whatever yapping, scratching and slashing tricks he has in his arsenal. More important will be Boston's ability to hit Pittsburgh's forwards and make them turn pucks over in their own zone and the neutral zone. They do a lot of that when they get sloppy and frustrated. Hey, if a steady player such as Chicago's Jonathan Toews can get knocked off his game in the playoffs, it can happen to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Neal and such. If someone such as Brooks Orpik or Matt Cooke gets involved and becomes a needed source of retribution, the Bruins will be doing their job.
Muir: Look, the Bruins are inarguably a tougher, meaner, more disciplined squad than what the Pens have had to contend with so far, and they employ a few characters who can slither under your skin and make life miserable. But the Pens already completed their coursework on maintaining composure during their tough first-round set with the Islanders. And this year's team is a more mature group, especially since the additions of Iginla and Morrow. That veteran presence, along with the renewed focus should keep the Pens from going off the rails, no matter how aggravating the Bruins might be.
Kwak: For Boston, I'd say the Bruins could get more out of Tyler Seguin, who has just one goal so far this postseason. After a quiet first round, the 21-year-old forward was beginning to find some of his offensive touch towards the end of the Rangers series. With limited minutes, Seguin could be a game-breaker for the Bruins. In Pittsburgh, the same could be said for Neal, who exploded for seven points in the last two games against Ottawa. Regaining his form and his unbeatable chemistry with Evgeni Malkin, Neal will be a key force for the Penguins.
Cazeneuve: He hasn't really been overlooked and he's had moments when he's slowed to a crawl, but Jaromir Jagr would love to put a capper on his NHL career by shutting up the Penguins fans who have been on his case about not coming back to Pittsburgh. Jagr was Boston's Plan B when the Bruins couldn't snare Jarome Iginla, and Iginla has put up a very respectable 12 points so far in the playoffs. Jagr is fourth on the Bruins in shots with 36, nine more than David Krejci, the leading scorer in the playoffs. He's getting closer to potting the first one, and even though his shifts are shortening, don't expect Claude Julien to take him off the power play.
Muir: Already mentioned him once, but let me bring him up again here: Brenden Morrow. Look, nobody was more down on this guy than me when he was with Dallas this season. There were nights when he looked so disinterested that he should have offered an apology to his teammates and the paying customers afterward. But he seems to have rediscovered his passion since joining the Pens, and with no pressure to produce, he's focused on doing what he does best. I expect him to be a physical force in this series, banging bodies, working the cycle down low, and planting his butt firmly and frequently in Rask's crease.
Kwak: For Boston, my Conn Smythe-winner at the halfway point is Zdeno Chara, who kept Phil Kessel relatively quiet in the first round and then all but silenced Rick Nash in the Rangers series. He's averaging almost 30 minutes per game, dictating the pace on most nights and making it hard for his opponents to sustain any zone time when he's out there. For Pittsburgh, it's Sidney Crosby. The captain is the engine of this high-octane offense. He leads their forwards in ice time, and has a team-high seven goals. He can break games open almost single-handedly, though he doesn't always need to because of the Penguins' depth.
Cazeneuve: I'll stick with my original choice of Kris Letang. Pittsburgh is deadly when its fourth man joins the rush, and you don't lose much on the back end with Letang. Okay, he is prone to one bad giveaway per game, but even the best Penguins teams have always been that way. As for the Bruins, I've been impressed with Tuukka Rask, several of the forwards and the young D, but Chara is the backbone of that team. He can turn power forwards into mush, he contributes offensively, and he logs a load of ice time.
Muir: I like how reliable Rask has been, but I'm not going to argue against Chara. He's been a relentless beast in his own end and I've been impressed by how confident and creative he's been in the offensive zone. Where was this guy during the regular season? And he chews up so much of the hard ice (29:13 per game, tops among active players) that it takes the pressure off the rest of the D, allowing them to play to their comfort level. I don't think there's an advanced metric that can capture the overall impact he has on that team. And yeah, it's gotta be Sid for the Pens. Not just because of the numbers you guys mention, but the courage he displayed coming back from that horrible jaw injury. The guys saw there was no fear, in Sid and that he was willing to put himself in any situation despite the imminent threat of re-injuring his jaw. He's setting a tone that the rest of the team has followed.