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Bruins in championship form, shut down star-studded Penguins for return to Stanley Cup final

BOSTON — The final shot, fittingly, came off the stick of Jarome Iginla. The future Hall of Famer chose to waive his no-trade clause for the Pittsburgh Penguins before the deadline, even though the Calgary Flames had worked out a deal with the Boston Bruins, because he wanted to play with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and their all-star cast. He figured they would give him his best chance at the Stanley Cup.

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Tuukka Rask surrendered only two goals in four games against Pittsburgh in the East final. (USA Today)

Iginla picked the wrong team. He wasn’t the only one. The Penguins were the favorites entering the Eastern Conference final – the NHL’s top scoring team in the regular season and the playoffs, featuring those two former MVPs and scoring champions. They had beaten the Bruins six straight times. They had won six straight in Boston. But it didn’t matter. Not even close.

When that final flurry ended and that final shot was stopped by goaltender Tuukka Rask, it was just one more futile attempt – and one more indignity for Iginla, who had watched an Adam McQuaid shot glance off his stick and into the Pittsburgh net earlier in the third period. The Bruins blanked the Penguins on Friday night, 1-0. They swept them in the series, 4-0. They smothered them, suffocated them, stifled them, stoned them – incredible, indelible goose eggs.

In four games – in more than 275 minutes of hockey, thanks to double overtime in Game 3 – the Bruins allowed all that star power and firepower only two goals. They never allowed the Penguins to lead for a second, never allowed them a power-play goal, never allowed Crosby or Malkin or Iginla or James Neal or Kris Letang a single point.

Rask stopped 134 of 136 shots. Many others hit sticks or bodies or posts. It seemed otherworldly, at least to the Penguins, who felt they had enough chances but couldn’t break through for some reason they couldn’t identify. Although he called Rask the difference in the series, coach Dan Bylsma said “it felt like something was keeping the puck out” and “there was a force around the net.” Ghosts from the old Boston Garden? Maybe, maybe not. But this will haunt the Penguins for a long, long time.

[Related: Bruins blank Penguins to complete sweep in East final]

“I think we played exactly what was our game plan,” said Bruins center David Krejci. “There was no guy who was cheating on the ice. We all played with responsibility, we all took pride in our game, and we shut them down.”

There is a reason the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011. They shut down the top offensive team in the NHL at that time, too, surprising the Vancouver Canucks in a scrappy, physical, seven-game final. They have a chance to win the Cup for the second time in three years – and to become the first team to win it twice since the salary cap was introduced in 2005-06 – because they have the same coach, most of the same players, the same system and the same dogged approach.

Rask has replaced Tim Thomas, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player that year, but he has put up even better numbers than Thomas did then. Thomas posted a .940 save percentage. Rask is at .943. The Bruins still have Zdeno Chara, a winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman, and Patrice Bergeron, a winner of the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. Though coach Claude Julien is short on sexy scorers, he has a long bench.

“There’s four lines who can play,” said Jaromir Jagr, the 41-year-old future Hall of Famer, whom the Bruins added at the deadline after they failed to land Iginla. “It’s a huge advantage. You’re not depending on one or two guys and everybody waiting for them to score. … Coach try to roll four lines, doesn’t matter what the situation is. Even we were up, 1-0, 10 minutes to go, we were still rolling four lines. Not many teams have the lineup to be able to do it.”

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Sidney Crosby and several other Penguins stars were held pointless in the series. (AP)

The Penguins have a point. They played well the first two periods of Game 1, and the 3-0 score was a little misleading. Though they stunk in Game 2, self-destructing in a 6-1 loss, they responded. Game 3 went to double OT, so it could have gone either way. Game 4 went into the third period scoreless, so it could have gone either way. Echoing his teammates, Crosby said: “I don’t feel like they totally shut us down.”

But the Bruins played fairly consistently throughout the series. When they had the puck, they managed it well. When they didn’t have the puck, the forwards backchecked hard. The defensemen boxed out and didn’t let the Penguins near the net. Rask saw just about every puck and stopped just about everything he saw. The Penguins had few second chances. “We played the system perfectly,” Bergeron said.

Crosby would lose faceoffs to Bergeron – or win faceoffs only to find Bergeron glued to him. He struggled as badly as he ever has, outside of some flashes. Malkin kept running into Chara and was a non-factor except for a solid performance in Game 3.

“They’re great players,” Jagr said. “There’s no question about it. It’s not easy. It’s like everybody waiting for them to do something. … If you’re going to play against LeBron James, you’re going to put two guys on him, let the other guys beat you.”

[Watch: Chicago snaps L.A.'s home playoff win streak]

The other guys couldn’t beat the Bruins, either. General manager Ray Shero went all-in before the trade deadline, adding Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray. He said this was his deepest team, even deeper than the one that won the Cup in 2009. It was a team that won without Crosby and Malkin when they were injured during the regular season. But it couldn’t win without them on the scoresheet in this series. The Pens looked out of sync too often and fell short of expectations, and this group can’t stay intact because of the cap.

“We have the assets to go far every year, and the management and the owners always help us create a good team,” said Letang, who struggled badly during the series after being named a finalist for the Norris Trophy. “So it’s always a fail when we don’t get our goal.”

Shero now has tough decisions to make. Does he bring back Bylsma? What does he do about guys who need new contracts or extensions, most notably Malkin and Letang? Does he make another aggressive trade like he did last summer when he moved Jordan Staal?

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli could have been in the same position. His team blew a 3-1 series lead to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round and faced a 4-1 deficit in the third period of Game 7. But after rallying to win, the Bruins have lost only once since, ripping through the New York Rangers in five games, sweeping the Penguins, rediscovering their identity.

Before the series, Bruins winger Milan Lucic compared the Penguins to the Miami Heat. After the game Friday night, he was asked if the Penguins were the Heat, what did that make the Bruins? He laughed. He paused.

“I got no answer for that,” he said.

The Boston Bruins don’t have to be anybody but themselves.

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