This is the Eastern Conference Final that many expected, especially after both teams were aggressive at the trade deadline, including one big deal that ended with Jarome Iginla choosing the Pittsburgh Penguins over the Boston Bruins.
The Penguins were 3-0-0 against the Bruins during the regular season, with all three games being decided by a single goal. Pittsburgh netminder Tomas Vokoun was in net for two of those three meetings and, barring a Fleury-esque meltdown, he'll do the same as the Penguins and Bruins battle to reach the Stanley Cup Final.
But regular season success doesn't always translate into success in a best-of-7 playoff series. Both teams faced adversity to get here, with the Bruins coming within 10 minutes of elimination in Round 1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs before a miraculous comeback saved their season. The Penguins were pushed hard by the New York Islanders in the opening round, but survived and advanced in six games, thanks to two overtime winners.
Both sailed through the second round and are playing some of their best hockey of the season. So how will this series end?
Pittsburgh Penguins (1) vs. Boston Bruins (4)
June 1: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins, 8 p.m. ET.
June 3: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins, 8 p.m. ET.
June 5: Pittsburgh Penguins at Boston Bruins, 8 p.m. ET.
June 7: Pittsburgh Penguins at Boston Bruins, 8 p.m. ET.
June 9: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins, 8 p.m. ET.*
June 11: Pittsburgh Penguins at Boston Bruins, TBD*
June 12: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins, TBD*
The biggest job the Bruins will have is slowing down the Penguins' offense, led by the two-headed monster of Sidney Crosby (7 goals) and Evgeni Malkin (16 points). Of course, we're talking about a team that's averaging 4.27 goals per game through the first two rounds. That means you can shut down Crosby and Malkin, but then you need to worry about James Neal (10 points), Pascal Dupuis (6 goals), Chris Kunitz (9 points) and, of course, Jarome Iginla (12 points). Bruins head coach Claude Julien will be busy trying to find the right match-ups to keep their arsenal at bay.
You don't come this far in the Stanley Cup playoffs without good depth, something that's been a staple of Penguins teams in recent years. General Manager Ray Shero went out and got Brenden Morrow in March for his veteran presence, leadership and physicality he can provide. He's done all that and more, and has chipped in four points in the postseason.
Matt Cooke had the Erik Karlsson incident to deal with last series and there won't be any Bruins fans who forgot about the hit he laid on Marc Savard in 2010. But as we saw against the Senators, the Karlsson sidebar didn't effect him and Cooke recorded three assists in the series. He can deal with a few boos. He is Matt Cooke after all.
These are the top two playoff offenses facing one another. After the Penguins' 47 goals scored are the Bruins and their 38 goals through 12 games. Nine different Boston forwards have scored goals, led by the top line of David Krejci (5 goals, 17 points), Nathan Horton (5 goals, 12 points) and Milan Lucic (3 goals, 10 points).
Boston's top two lines may not have the offensive flash as Pittsburgh's, but they're just as strong. Patrice Bergeron has 7 points, but also provides double-duty defensively. He'll attempt to keep Sidney Crosby in check this series. Brad Marchand woke up out of his offensive slumber and was big against the New York Rangers, netting 7 of his 9 points, including both of his goals.
Then there's Jaromir Jagr. For the second straight season, the 41-year old Jagr will look to eliminate his former team from the playoffs. He hasn't scored in 14 games, but there's no denying his ability to possess the puck and create scoring chances.
What could play a big role in the battle of the forwards is the Bruins' fourth line, better known as the "Merlot Line", made up of Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton. The trio combined for 10 points versus the Rangers. If that mix of offensive contributions and physical play continues, they will give the Penguins' defense fits.
After suffering fits against the speedy Islanders, the Penguins' defense settled down in Round 2. They still had their moments, but they were improved. Kris Letang (16 points) leads all defensemen in scoring through two rounds and he's Pittsburgh's go-to man when it comes to transition. He's been aided offensively by Paul Martin (9 points), who's had a resurgent 2013 season after a struggle-filled 2011-12 campaign.
That's all for the offense, really, out of the Penguins' blueline. After those two it's about the physical pair of Brooks Orpik and Douglas Murray. They'll attempt to counteract the Bruins' bruising forwards when each one takes the ice. If things get really physical, Bylsma could always re-insert Deryk Engelland, who last played in Game 2 versus the Senators.
Only three Bruins defensemen -- Zdeno Chara, Adam McQuaid and Johnny Boychuk -- have played all 12 games in the playoffs. Injuries to Wade Redden, Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference have forced Julien to mix in youngsters like Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug; the latter currently on fire with four goals (three power play goals) in his first five NHL playoff games.
Seidenberg returned for Game 5 against the Rangers, but Redden and Ference are still on the mend. Even when the pair do get healthy, Julien will have a tough decision to make to possibly remove Bartkowski and/or Krug from lineup.
Chara, the physically imposing specimen, will be on the ice for half the game, but Julien will have to choose if he wants him to face the Crosby or Malkin lines. Usually paired with Seidenberg, Julien has put Chara with different partners during practice, but the top pairing will likely remain when Game 1 arrives on Saturday.
He hasn't been spectacular, but he's been exactly what the Penguins needed after Marc-Andre Fleury's tumultuous four games against the Islanders: steady. Tomas Vokoun was brought to Pittsburgh for this role and so far, so good. Having won six of his seven starts, Vokoun has posted a 1.85 goals against average (third overall) and a .941 save percentage, only .007 behind LA Kings netminder Jonathan Quick.
Julien hasn't needed to think about replacing Rask, who through 12 starts has a 2.22 GAA and .928 save percentage. Each of his four losses have come in close games, and without a brief slip in Game 4 against New York, he might have been riding a five-game winning streak into this series. Rask has gotten stronger as the playoffs have moved along and provided the same steady presence in net that Vokoun has given the Penguins.
Player That Deserves Asterisk
There's no way Torey Krug can keep this up, can he? Three power play goals in his first five NHL playoff games? A 25-percent shooting percentage? He's going to level off soon, right? Right?
Both Dan Bylsma and Claude Julien have Stanley Cup conquests on their resumes. Both have guided their teams through sticky situations through the first two rounds of the postseason. Both have been with their teams long enough to know exactly what buttons to push and when adjustments need to be made and when.
It would be wise for the Bruins to stay out of the penalty box, seeing as how the Penguins' power play is clicking at a 28.3 percent success rate through 11 playoff games. Pittsburgh has scored 13 goals with the man advantage, with the Bruins and Kings the next highest among the final four with seven. While the Penguins power play unit has much of the focus, the Bruins are playing much better in the postseason up a man than they did during the regular season cashing in 21.9 percent of the time compared to that of 14.8 percent through the first 48 games of the season.
On the penalty kill, both teams have gone in opposite directions since the regular season. The Penguins are tops among the remaining teams with an improve 89.7 percent kill rate, including two shorthanded goals. Meanwhile, the Bruins are chugging along having killed 81.1 percent of power plays, down from 87.1 percent during the regular season.
The Player You Hate To Love
Sidney Crosby gets booed in 29 of the 30 NHL arenas. He'll hear it from the fans inside TD Garden this series, but it's hard not to respect a guy who has come back from numerous injuries and continued being one of the league's top scorers and most dominant players.
He plays a game that adores him to the home fans and boils the blood of opponents. Brad Marchand's pest-y style has made him a successful player in the NHL and when he's not punching a Sedin six times in the face to get under some skin, he's chipping in big goals, like his overtime winner in Game 1 against the Rangers.
The Player You Love To Hate
The city of Boston will never forget Matt Cooke's hit on Marc Savard. No matter how much he's changed his game over the last two seasons, no one in Boston will fail to remind him of his past.
Jaromir Jagr is one of the greatest players in the history of the Penguins' franchise. He's also one of their top villains. After his tumultuous departure from the team in 2001, he almost returned in 2011 during #JagrWatch before deciding to join their hated rivals in the Philadelphia Flyers.
Penguins in 7.
An argument can be made for any of these four teams to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Their positives completely outweigh any potential negatives, and you don't get to this point of the playoffs without having all engines firing.
Before the playoffs we picked the Penguins to represent the East and we haven't seen anything from them (now that Fleury is benched) to believe otherwise. Their offense doesn't look like it can be slowed. Their defense has improved since the Islanders series. And Tomas Vokoun is doing exactly what he was brought to Pittsburgh to do.
The Bruins will put up a helluva fight. This series will be fun, physical and the match-ups (Crosby vs. Bergeron, Merlot Line vs. Pittsburgh defense) will be fascinating to watch.