The Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins clash for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup final. David Shoalts breaks down the series to see who has the edge heading into Game 1 on Saturday in Pittsburgh.
Friendships are routinely put on hold for the Stanley Cup playoffs, and so it will be for Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron.
But it isn't often the friends will then go head-to-head with a berth in the Stanley Cup final on the line. The winner in the shutdown stakes between Crosby and Bergeron will likely see his team win the Eastern Conference final that starts Saturday in Pittsburgh.
Crosby, the leader of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is not only the best offensive centre in the NHL, he is the best player in hockey. Bergeron is the No. 1 centre for the Boston Bruins and ranks with Pavel Datsyuk as the best defensive centre in the league. It will be his job to keep Crosby as contained as possible (with help from defenceman Zdeno Chara).
The really big problem for the Bruins, who are vulnerable to teams with quick forwards, is the Penguins' supply of superstar centres outstrips the Bruins' supply of ace shutdown artists. When Crosby comes off, there is Evgeni Malkin to worry about. He will probably get the attention of Bruins No. 2 centre, David Krejci.
Crosby, 25, is the Pens top threat and Bergeron, 27, knows him well. While both have a history of serious concussions interrupting their careers and both have won a Stanley Cup, Bergeron and Crosby were linemates on the 2006 Canadian team at the world championship and won an Olympic gold medal together at the Vancouver Games in 2010.
This has given Crosby a healthy respect for Bergeron, although he has not fared badly against him. In the 18 games they have played against each other, Crosby admits Bergeron holds the edge in winning faceoffs, but he has 27 points, good for 1.5 per game. That is slightly higher than Crosby's 1.42 career average and Bergeron will have to make sure it is a lot lower in the conference final or, considering Crosby's supporting cast, the Bruins will crash and burn.
There is no shortage of storylines between these teams, beginning with notorious Penguins agitator Matt Cooke. It was his hit on March 7, 2010, that left Bruins centre Marc Savard with a concussion from which he is still recovering. Bruins winger Milan Lucic told reporters this week, he still thinks about that hit.
Jaromir Jagr will be out to prove a few things in this series and no, beating the Penguins, the team that drafted him in 1990, and from which he had a bitter divorce, is not at the top of the list. Been there, done that last year with the Philadelphia Flyers. He wants to show the Penguins he was not a lame second choice when Jarome Iginla rejected a trade to the Bruins from the Calgary Flames in February and went to the Penguins instead, leaving the Bruins to grab Jagr.
Penguins goaltender Marc-André Fleury looked sharp in practice all week, raising the question of him starting for the first time since he was yanked in favour of Tomas Vokoun in the first round. It looks like Vokoun will start the series Saturday, but he will be on a short leash, so a reappearance by Fleury is possible.
The Toronto Maple Leafs showed in the first round the Bruins are vulnerable to quick forwards that can get on top of their relatively slow defence on the fore-check.
With a cast of Crosby, Malkin, James Neal, Iginla and Chris Kunitz, the Bruins will be facing their fastest and most-skilled opponent thus far. Chara will find he has a target painted on his sweater, as the Pens will be hitting him every chance they get.
THE REGULAR SEASON
March 12, at Pittsburgh: Penguins 3, Bruins 2
March 17, at Pittsburgh: Penguins 2, Bruins 1
April 20, at Boston: Penguins 3, Bruins 2
Pens general manager Ray Shero won't admit it, but the Iginla trade and the flurry of others he made at the deadline were made with the Bruins in mind. Boston likes to roll four lines and the Pens now have the depth to match or exceed that after adding forwards Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow and Iginla.
The Bruins third line went silent in the second round against the Ottawa Senators. Chris Kelly and company will need to be heard from in this series.
Chara and partner Dennis Seidenberg will be assigned to help Bergeron cover Crosby. Head coach Claude Julien hints he may break them up so one can help with Malkin, but the duo is much weaker apart.
Tuukka Rask has been a standout thus far for the Bruins. Fleury, on the other hand, had to be bailed out by Penguins backup Vokoun, who was obtained just for this possibility. This is the one position where the Bruins have the edge.
Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Jaromir Jagr
Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton
Rich Peverley-Chris Kelly-Tyler Seguin
Daniel Paille-Gregory Campbell-Shawn Thornton
Zdeno Chara-Dennis Seidenberg
Matt Bartkowski-Johnny Boychuk
Torey Krug-Adam McQuaid
Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Pascal Dupuis
Jarome Iginla-Evgeni Malkin-James Neal
Matt Cooke-Brandon Sutter-Tyler Kennedy
Brenden Morrow-Jussi Jokinen-Craig Adams
Brooks Orpik-Paul Martin
Kris Letang-Mark Eaton
Matt Niskanen-Douglas Murray
Boston – D Andrew Ference, foot, day-to-day; D Wade Redden, undisclosed, day-to-day.
Pittsburgh – No significant injuries.
Penguins, ranked first in playoffs, 13 goals in 46 opportunities, 28.3-per-cent success rate, three short-handed goals allowed.
Bruins, ranked fifth in playoffs, seven goals in 32 opportunities, 21.9-per-cent success rate, one short-handed goal allowed.
Penguins, third in playoffs, four goals allowed in 39 opportunities, 89.7-per-cent success rate, two short-handed goals scored.
Bruins, eighth, seven goals allowed in 37 opportunities, 81.1-per-cent success rate, one short-handed goal scored.
Julien is a conservative, defence-first coach who strives for matchups. He will keep Bergeron and Chara on Crosby as much as possible.
Dan Bylsma, thanks to the talent at his disposal, goes for a quick transition game and likes to see his forwards get in quickly on the opposing defence to fore-check. He does not worry about matchups, expecting his best players to prevail.
Penguins in six games.