The Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins are ready to battle in the Eastern Conference Final for the right to play for the 2013 Stanley Cup.
They’re two teams with similar color schemes, rabid fan bases and a tangled recent history. They’re also very well-matched and poised for what could be a classic series.
Here are 10 storylines to watch for this year’s beasts of the East:
1. Jarome Iginla Meets The Bruins
The Hockey Gods couldn’t have mapped it any better: The Boston Bruins believed they’d acquired Jarome Iginla from the Calgary Flames; Iginla, instead, evoked his no-trade clause to force Calgary’s hand and land in his desired destination; that destination was Pittsburgh, who now faces the Bruins for the right to play for the Cup.
Iginla has four goals and eight assists in 11 games, along with 14 PIMs in 15:53 TOI per game. All eyes will be on him to do something of significance in this series: Justifying the Penguins’ pursuit of him, or the Bruins’ hidden fortune in not acquiring him and instead getting …
2. Jaromir Jagr vs. The Penguins
… Jaromir Jagr, the backup plan after they whiffed on Iginla. Jagr has four assists in the postseason, and was scoreless against his former team the Rangers. In two of those games, he managed just one shot on goal. He was scoreless against the Penguins in one game this season. Last year, as a member of the Flyers, Jagr had five points in six regular season games. Does he have any magic left against the team with whom he won two Cups? Or is Jagr just window dressing at this stage of his career?
3. Allowing the Penguins To Lead After 2 Periods
Pittsburgh has played 11 playoff games. They’ve led going into the third period in eight of them, winning seven – the only loss coming on that freaky Daniel Alfredsson shorthanded goal followed by the Senators’ OT game winner. The Bruins have shown an ability to rally from a deficit – ask Toronto – but giving the Pens the lead after two periods is pretty much giving them the win.
4. Marc-Andre Fleury Waits In The Wings
Tomas Vokoun stabilized the Penguins goaltending situation after Marc-Andre Fleury’s tumultuous four games against the Islanders. He hasn’t given up more than two even-strength goals in six of seven appearances, but he hasn’t been perfect either: Giving up three goals to the Senators twice. It would take a series deficit and Vokoun shouldering the blame for it to see him out and Fleury back in. But with the “franchise goalie” waiting for another chance, it could be a scenario that plays out.
5. Torey Krug-a-mania
The Bruins’ rookie is John Druce’ing all over the playoffs, as the diminutive defenseman (5-9) has five points in five games, including four goals, since coming on as an injury replacement in Game 1. Three of the goals have come on the power play, where his booming shot as been an asset. He’s making the most of his 15:52 TOI, paired with Adam McQuaid, and the Penguins suddenly have to gameplan around a player with three regular-season games in his career.
6. Can Sidney Crosby Overcome The Bergeron Line?
Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron have been linked through the years, whether it’s by position or championship success or their battles with concussion symptoms. Bergeron has given Crosby fits in the faceoff circle in the past, as one of the best shutdown centers in hockey. Crosby has 15 points in 10 games in the postseason. This could be an epic battle between Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis vs. Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Jagr – made even more epic if Claude Julien decides to split Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg between the Crosby and Malkin lines.
7. Another Matt Cooke Love Fest
Matt Cooke already had one uncomfortable matchup in the playoffs, taking on the Ottawa Senators at the same time their owner was engaged in a CSI-style investigation of his skate slice on Erik Karlsson. Three years after knocking Marc Savard from the NHL, Cooke is still Public Enemy No. 1 in Boston … at least in the eyes of Jack Edwards:
8. Can The Merlot Line Make a Difference?
The unsung heroes of the Bruins’ win over the Rangers was The Merlot Line – so named for the color of their practice jerseys – of Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton. This energy line dominated on the forecheck and put up points; can they get the same type of effort against the Penguins?
9. Tuukka Rask vs. the Penguins Power Play
Ever since he tumbled onto his rump and gave up a goal to Carl Hagelin in Game 4, Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask hasn’t seemed like he’s been in complete control – although he made one hell of a stop on Ryan Callahan in Game 5.
With the Penguins’ arsenal ready to be unleashed, Rask will have to be on top of his game – especially on the penalty kill, where the Penguins are the best in the postseason and where Rask was able to kick his feet up most of the time against the Rangers. Still, he gave up two power-play goals to the Rangers and seven of the playoffs on just 45 times shorthanded. The Bruins kill needs to be better, and that starts with Rask.
10. The Conn Smythe Watch
The series is filled with potential MVP candidates. David Krejci leads the NHL in playoff points with 17 in 12 games. Evgeni Malkin has 16 in 11 games. Kris Letang (16 in 11), Sidney Crosby (15 in 10), Nathan Horton (12 in 12) and Jarome Iginla (12 in 11) round out the scoring leaders in the postseason. Factor in Pascal Dupuis’ seven goals and Zdeno Chara’s awesome all-around play, and there are a bunch of players that could emerge as MVP favorites if their team emerges from the series.