While both rounds of the Western Conference Semi-Finals went to a Game 7, the participants for the Eastern Conference Finals have been sitting pretty and waiting for Saturday night.
There are two key stories that revolve around this upcoming series between the (No. 1) Pittsburgh Penguins and the (No. 4) Boston Bruins.
First and foremost, the Penguins will be playing against the team that thought they had won the “Jarome Iginla Sweepstakes” at the trade deadline in April. After some false reports leaked out that Iginla was traded to the Bruins, it was only an hour later that the media was corrected when the true story came out that the former Calgary Flames’ captain chose the Penguins.
Some may call it controversial, but Iginla told reporters when asked about the mishap that he had never made a “list” of teams and specifically asked to be traded to Pittsburgh.
“I never said ‘yes,’ and then ‘no.’ It wasn’t a case of that.” Iginla said. “It was very fortunate that both teams were interested and I chose [Pittsburgh].”
The Penguins’ forward told reporters Wednesday he felt there would be a possibility of the two teams meeting in the playoffs and is looking forward to a challenging series.
Iginla and the Penguins advanced to the Conference finals after eliminating the Ottawa Senators in five games; a series where Pittsburgh outscored Ottawa 22-11.
On a team that is surrounded by stars from top to bottom, the Penguins look to continue their success on both ends of the ice as they have in the past few weeks after performing at a somewhat shoddy level in the first round against the New York Islanders.
Although Pittsburgh scored big by adding Iginla, Boston did what they could in retaliation when they traded for former Penguin Jaromir Jagr, who will face his old team once again in post-season action. The Bruins were in search to add depth of their own on the score sheet and thus far, Jagr has does his share.
Despite all of the offensive fire-power on both teams, do not expect high scoring games with ten-plus goals each time out.
The true story in this series is going to come down to the two men between the pipes.
Tuukka Rask has seen the bulk of the work for Boston this season with Tim Thomas out of the picture going into the shortened 2013 season. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, it seemed as though Thomas would be getting a hefty contract but that was not the case.
Boston fans prayed to the hockey gods for a respectable replacement who could get the job done in the postseason and Rask (to this point) has answered. He has posted an 8-4 record with a 2.22 GAA and .928 save percentage throughout the playoffs.
And who can forget his efforts in the opening round against the Toronto Maple Leafs when Rask kept his team in the game trailing 4-2 in the third period of Game 7. Even down by a pair, Rask was asked to make numerous saves late in the game when Boston scored two goals in the last final minutes of the game to advance to the overtime period. The Bruins went on to win that game in overtime in a dramatic 5-4 victory.
Rask is also coming off an impressive five game series win against the New York Rangers where he allowed just ten goals on 157 shots (.936 save percentage).
On the other end of the ice- his counterpart, Tomas Vokoun.
Here is a guy who jumped in to save the day for Head Coach Dan Bylsma, much like a storybook ending (which is not complete… yet).
Vokoun took over as the starter in relief of a slumping Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the opening round and has been money since that juncture. Some critics doubted the veteran’s ability to carry a team in the playoffs given his track record. Mind you that his lack of success in previous playoff rounds came while starting for the offensively-challenged Nashville Predators.
It did not take long for Vokoun to get the respect and support from the fans of Pittsburgh being that he recorded a shutout in his first start in Game 5 against the Islanders. So far, he has a 6-1 record with a 1.86 GAA and an impressive .941 save percentage.
As long as he can remain solid as he has been, this could be a pretty quick series. Vokoun should not have as much riding on his back given the Penguins’ depth in scoring. Some may say he did not have to be spectacular against Ottawa however, he was indeed better than Craig Anderson who was chased twice in the series.
The key matchup many will be looking forward to (other than the goaltending) will be Sidney Crosby and Zdeno Chara. Crosby, who was forced to wear a protective shield around his face and jaw since his return was cleared to remove it, improving his vision in the faceoff circle and pucks at his feet. The captain has 15 points (7 G and 8 A) in the postseason and could be racking votes for the Conn Smythe.
It will also be interesting to watch Crosby and Jagr on the ice as the two have displayed in the past they do not care for each other.
The Penguins have made a living eliminating Jagr from the playoffs in his previous years with the Washington Capitals and the Rangers.
Another thing Boston will have to do in order to pull off the upset has to do with special teams. They will have to find a way to slow down the Penguins’ red hot powerplay which has been relentless all year round. The Bruins cannot dig their own grave like Ottawa did being sent to the penalty box excessively.
Patrice Bergeron will play a huge part on both sides of the special teams. As in any tight series between two of the best teams in the league, all fundamentals come back into play. For the Bruins, it will be their success in the faceoff circle which will lead them to more chances. The Penguins have not been exposed in many areas so far except in their lack of faceoff wins. Which leaves many to believe that Jussi Jokinen will be called upon throughout the series to match up against one of the top faceoff teams in the National Hockey League.
Pittsburgh owned the season series however, they always say the playoffs are a totally different animal. Just like a lot of playoff series, it will come down to goaltending and special teams. And if one were to look at the stats on paper, the average spectator would know that numbers do not lie. The Penguins should be heading to another Stanley Cup Final.
Ekiert’s prediction: Penguins in 6