The Pittsburgh Penguins certainly don't mind meeting the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final.
Not only does Pittsburgh have a perfect record against Boston this season -- 3-0-0, outscoring the Bruins 8-5 in three one-goal victories --but the Penguins have won the past six regular-season meetings between the two clubs and have won six straight games in Boston.
Just as attractively, the Penguins have beaten the Bruins the past two times these teams have met at this hurdle, advancing to win the Stanley Cup each time.
The Penguins beat the Bruins in the 1991 Wales Conference Finals on the way to winning the Stanley Cup, then did it again the following year on the way to repeating as champions.
Certainly, Pittsburgh would like to make it a trifecta of Stanley Cup Playoffs semifinal wins and advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since winning the tournament in 2009. The Bruins, however, have other ideas and are looking to get back to the Final for the second time in three years. Boston defeated the Vancouver Canucks to win the Stanley Cup in 2011.
Both teams advanced past the second round with relative ease after being pushed harder in the first round.
The Penguins, the top-seeded team in the East, knocked off the seventh-seeded Ottawa Senators in five games, outscoring their opponents 22-11 in a dominant showing. Ottawa's only win, in Game 3, came in double overtime.
Fourth-seeded Boston, meanwhile, dispatched the sixth-seeded New York Rangers in five games. New York's only win came in a sweep-avoiding overtime performance in Game 4.
If current playoff form is any indication, there should be a fair amount of offense in this series.
The top six scorers in the postseason are involved in the series, led by Boston center David Krejci, who has a League-best 17 points. Teammate Nathan Horton has a dozen points and is in a fifth-place tie. The other four spots are occupied by Penguins -- forward Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang each has 16 points, while Sidney Crosby has 15 and Jarome Iginla has 12.
But, both teams also feature stout defenses and hot goalies.
Pittsburgh is only allowing 2.5 goals per game and has been even stingier since Tomas Vokoun seized the starting job from a struggling Marc-Andre Fleury in Round 1. Boston has allowed 28 goals in a dozen outings and Tuukka Rask has a sterling .928 save percentage.
Pittsburgh has shown during the first two rounds that perhaps no team goes as deep as the Penguins when it comes to scoring ability up front.
Eleven forwards have at least one goal for the Penguins and eight have more than one. Every one of the 15 forwards that has dressed in the first 11 games of the playoffs has at least one point.
But, it is the brightest stars that are carrying the biggest loads for the top seed. Evgeni Malkin is quietly having a Conn Smythe campaign with four goals and 12 assists. Crosby, who missed the first game of the playoffs with his still-healing fractured jaw, has 15 points. Jarome Iginla (12), Pascal Dupuis (10) and James Neal (10) also have double-digit point totals. Neal, unbelievably quiet in the first round, scored five goals in the final two games against Ottawa.
Pittsburgh's depth is perfectly illustrated by the fact that the forwards have six of the team's eight game-winning goals and six different forwards have scored those goals. The team can also score in any situation as it dominated on the power play throughout, scored some huge shorthanded goals and had two huge 4-on-4 goals in the clinching game of the second round.
But, the Penguins also have important depth players up front. Craig Adams is an excellent penalty killer. Brenden Morrow is a veteran leader. Matt Cooke plays an intimidating north-south game. Tyler Kennedy, meanwhile, is riding a hot streak since being reinserted into the lineup.
Bruins coach Claude Julien has stayed consistent with his group of forwards and his lines because, well, why change what is working.
Krejci, Horton and Milan Lucic have been a dominant top line.
Krejci leads the League with 17 points. Horton has five goals and seven assists. Lucic has put his subpar regular season behind him to produce three goals and seven assists in the playoffs, though six of his assists did come in the first three games against Toronto.
The second line of Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and Jaromir Jagr has also been dangerous.
Bergeron lifted the Bruins past Toronto late in Game 7 and he and Marchand hooked up for the overtime winner in Game 1 against the Rangers. Jagr hasn't produced as much as he'd like, but he has been dangerous because he has used his big body to make up for his lack of speed.
Boston wants more out of its third line of Chris Kelly between Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley, but their lack of success isn't as much of a factor when you consider how well the fourth line is playing.
Gregory Campbell, Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille were the difference in Boston's 2-1 win in Game 3 against the Rangers and their 3-1 win in Game 5. Against the Rangers, Boston's fourth line scored the same amount of goals (4) as it got from its group of top-six forwards.
As good as the Penguins are up front, they may be just as strong on the blue line.
Letang was Pittsburgh's best player in the second round as he used his speed and ability to read the game on the transition to just dissect the Ottawa Senators. He is putting up points at a pace rarely seen in the glorious postseason history of the Penguins.
Paul Martin has also been a bit of an offensive revelation for the Penguins after struggling a bit throughout last season. Martin has two goals, nine points and is a plus-7. Matt Niskanen also has some offensive ability and sees a fair bit of time on the second power-play unit.
Those three offensive dynamos are complemented by a trip of physically intimidating defenders. Brooks Orpik, who plays mostly with Martin as the shut-down pairing, is a devastating hitter who punished opposing forwards. Douglas Murray, who plays with Niskanen, is a crease-clearing bulldozer. Mark Eaton, meanwhile, is more of an all-round defender who has shined in a role that supports Letang.
In the first two rounds, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma hasn't been afraid to use his depth to insert other defenders for specific scenarios. Simon Despres saw some time when Bylsma felt the offense needed a jump start. Deryk Engelland, meanwhile, was inserted when things looked to be a bit more physical.
Boston beat the Rangers in five despite having three rookies on the blue line for the first four games. However, Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski and Dougie Hamilton did not look the part or play the part of rookies in the conference semifinals, when they were forced into the lineup because of injuries to Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference and Wade Redden.
Seidenberg returned for Game 5, taking Hamilton's spot alongside captain Zdeno Chara. However, Bartkowski and Krug remained in the lineup and they were excellent. Krug, in particular, was magical.
He scored four goals and walked the blue line like a confident veteran who has done it over 1,000 times in the NHL even though he played in two NHL games before the conference semifinals.
The Bruins did not miss Andrew Ference, who remains out with a lower-body injury. But with the way Krug and Bartkowski performed, Ference may have a tough time getting back in if he were to get healthy.
Vokoun is authoring one of the best stories in this postseason, but it has been lost in the avalanche of goals Pittsburgh's top forwards are piling into the other net.
Vokoun, 36, was signed as an insurance policy for franchise-goalie Fleury and the team cashed that policy in for the make-or-break Game 5 against the New York Islanders in the first round after Fleury looked increasing shaky in the previous three games.
Vokoun won that Game 5 and hasn't looked back. In fact, he has lost just once in seven appearances this spring and that came in double overtime against Ottawa in game 3. While Vokoun hasn't really looked stylish or dominant in going 6-1, he is putting up the type of numbers that suggest he can be the guy to lead them to the Cup Final. He has a stunning .941 save percentage and 1.85 goals-against average.
Not surprisingly, Bylsma has shown no inclination to return to Fleury, who has taken his demotion without rocking the Penguins' boat.
This is Rask's team. There is no questioning that anymore.
Rask entered the playoffs shouldering the burden of being the goalie that was in net when Boston blew a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010. Now he's the goalie that is playing as well as he did in the regular season and helping backstop the Bruins on what could be a second Cup run in three years.
At no point in the playoffs has Julien had to consider removing Rask from a game. He has a 2.22 goals-against average and .928 save percentage through 12 games. He had a 2.49 GAA and .923 save percentage in the seven-game series win over the Maple Leafs. Those numbers were better (1.86 GAA and .936 save percentage) in the five-game series win over the Rangers.
He's been steady, confident and at times spectacular.
Bylsma rarely gets the credit he deserves because of the star power he has at his disposal.
The belief is any NHL coach worth his salt could manage a roster that features three proving scoring lines and a top-four on the blue line that is the envy of most teams in the League.
But, Bylsma has had to make some tough decisions through the first two rounds and has knocked them out of the park. None was bigger than the decision to go with Vokoun in Game 5, a decision that could have cost him his job if it did not succeed. He has juggled his depth at forward admirably and used the threat of less ice time or removal from the lineup to coax his best from his depth players.
If Claude Julien is nothing else at least he's consistent with his lineup and his lines and defense pairs. But he's much more than just consistent, which is another reason why the Bruins are eight wins away from their second Stanley Cup championship with Julien behind the bench.
Julien has been a calming influence for his team, especially when it nearly blew a 3-1 lead to the Maple Leafs and after it lost Game 4 to the Rangers. He didn't show any panic and any time shot down any questions about the 2010 flameout against the Flyers, saying, "You learn from the past and live in the moment, but you don't live in the past."
There are many reasons why the Pittsburgh Penguins are four wins away from the Stanley Cup Final, but none may be as telling as their play on special teams.
Pittsburgh has been absolutely lethal on the power play, scoring 13 man-advantage goals in 11 games while leading the League in power-play efficiency.
Clearly, the Penguins have the talent to be dangerous with the man advantage, but they deploy that talent in unique ways that make traditional kills less effective. Seven different Penguins have scored power-play goals already this postseason.
What is more dominating is the play of Pittsburgh's penalty kill, which is anchored by forwards Adams, Cooke and Brandon Sutter. Pittsburgh has allowed just four power-play goals in 11 games and has scored two shorthanded goals, both by Pascal Dupuis.
The power play was a big strength for the Bruins in the five-game series win against the Rangers after being a weakness in the regular season and in the seven-game series win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Boston was 4-for-12 against the Rangers, including three goals from Krug, whose one-timer is now known around the League. The fact that the Bruins are scoring on the power play now is huge considering the Penguins have been excellent with the man-advantage and lead the NHL at 28.3 percent.
Boston's penalty kill will also have to be great against Pittsburgh -- but this could be troubling. The Rangers, who finished the playoffs 4-for-44 on the power play, started to produce late in the series and that's not a good sign for the Bruins, who are 81.1 percent on the PK for the playoffs.
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh -- Since returning from the broken jaw that kept him out of the closing weeks of the season, Crosby has been the all-world player he was before a string of injuries temporarily derailed his momentum. Now, though, he will face the toughest defensive challenge of his postseason run this spring.
Crosby will see a ton of two-way forward Patrice Bergeron and the top defensive pairing of Chara and Seidenberg. He needs to find solutions to the challenges they will present to keep the Pittsburgh offense rolling.
Tyler Seguin, Boston -- He's starting to find his game, which is great news for the Bruins. Seguin had a goal and two assists in the final two games against the Rangers after going the first 10 games of the playoffs with no goals and one assists. His minutes are down, but his confidence doesn't seem to be. If the Bruins are going to beat the Penguins, Seguin will have to play a big role.
If he continues to produce it's also possible, if not likely, that Julien will move Seguin up, especially if Jagr struggles against Pittsburgh's speed and quick-strike talent.
Penguins will win if ... They stick to the game plan they followed so well against Ottawa. Boston is a similar team in the challenges it presents, but Pittsburgh has the skill and depth to solve the puzzle. The key is to continue to play the north-south game that was at the heart of the domination of Ottawa. Simply, they most get the puck behind the Boston defense, get in on the forecheck, go hard to the net and play physical. It is a style that pays dividends both in the short term and across the length of a long series.
Bruins will win if … They do not abandon their structure in the face of Pittsburgh's aggressive and potent offense. Structure is a big part of the Bruins game. They have it in all three zones and that structure allows them to play a consistently strong game. Pittsburgh will try to get Boston out of its structure and it will probably works at times, but if the Bruins are caught running around too much, they will get burned.