We’re down to the final four teams in the NHL Playoffs. Today, a look at the Eastern Conference Finals. Tomorrow, I’ll tackle the West.
Eastern Conference Finals - #1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #4 Boston Bruins:
Even though the Bruins are the fourth seed, these are the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins were the East’s top team in the first half of the regular season, posting a 17-3-3 record through their opening 23 games. The Penguins, of course, dominated the second half, galloping to the number one seed on the strength of a 15-game winning streak. Neither team was at its best in the first round, but both raised their level in the Eastern Semis.
The Penguins had a tough draw when they got the Islanders in the opening round. New York is a good, young team and plays a hard game. Pittsburgh easily could have lost that series – they needed to rally for wins in two of the six games. As a whole, the Penguins were sloppy in the series – too many turnovers, not enough puck possession and shaky team defense. Plus, they yanked starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury after Game Four and replaced him with Tomas Vokoun.
Against Ottawa in Round Two, however, the Penguins regained their brilliant regular season form. They dominated the Sens for long stretches in the series and their dynamic offense erupted for 22 goals during the five games. Even with the skill on Pittsburgh, the impressive goal output was no small feat against the Sens, who boasted the league’s second-best team GAA during the regular season. If not for Daniel Alfredsson’s short-handed goal in the final minute of Game Three to tie the score, 1-1, and set the stage for Ottawa’s eventual OT win, the Penguins likely would have swept Ottawa in four straight games.
The Bruins needed a miraculous comeback in the third period of Game Seven of their first round series against Toronto. Boston netted three third period goals, including two with the goalie pulled for an extra attacker, to erase a 4-1 deficit. The Bruins’ problem in that series, as expressed by head coach Claude Julien, was that they were being a “Jekyll and Hyde team.” This dual personality plagued Boston at times during the second half of the regular season. I wondered, heading into their second round series against the Rangers, if the Bruins would continue to struggle with consistency. It was the main reason why I thought the Rangers, with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, would upset the Bruins in seven games.
This figures to be a very enjoyable series to watch. They are the two best teams in the East and both at the top of their game right now. - Dave Mishkin
Obviously, that didn’t happen. Certainly, Lundqvist didn’t cost the Rangers the series – for the most part, he was quite good. But he couldn’t beat the Bruins by himself. The Bruins thoroughly and decisively outplayed the Rangers. When the Bruins are playing like Dr. Jekyll, they’re good enough to beat anyone in the league. (Perhaps from the Rangers’ point of view, the dominating Boston performance looked more like the sinister Mr. Hyde). The point is that, in beating the Rangers, the Bruins appeared to have recaptured the form that they displayed in the first 23 regular season games.
This figures to be a very enjoyable series to watch. They are the two best teams in the East and both at the top of their game right now. Most predictions I’ve heard so far have been pro-Pittsburgh. I can see why. The Penguins have more game-breakers than the Bruins and Pittsburgh has been dialed in offensively throughout the season. Assuming Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, et al. continue to make plays, it’s reasonable to question whether the Bruins can score enough to keep up.
But I’m going to be the contrarian here. I’m picking the Bruins, mostly because I love their chemistry. I’ve written it several times already in these playoff previews (and mentioned it earlier in this piece) and I’ll declare it one more time. When the Bruins are on their game, they can beat anyone in the league. Nearly all of their players have been together since their Stanley Cup season of 2011 – and their play reflects that. Coach Julien rolls all four of his lines, knowing that his fourth line, with Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton, might be the best fourth line in the NHL. (Campbell scored twice in the deciding game against the Rangers). His stable of defensemen are all solid – and rookie Torey Krug, with four goals in five playoff games, has provided an unexpected spark.
I also think there still remains a question about Pittsburgh’s goaltending. Maybe Tomas Vokoun can continue his run (he’s gone 6-1 since replacing Fleury), but the Bruins, with their dogged determination to get pucks and bodies to the opposition net, will make life difficult for him. More difficult than it’s been for him so far. Prediction: Boston In Six.