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Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Pittsburgh vs. Boston

10:10 AM, May 30, 2013   |    comments
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(Sports Network) - After facing a tougher than expected challenge in a six- game series win over the eighth-seeded New York Islanders in Round 1, the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to make relatively quick work of Ottawa in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

After downing the seventh-seeded Senators in five games, the East's top seed finds itself in the third round of the playoffs for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.

While Pittsburgh still has the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang leading the way, there is one big difference between this Penguins team and the club that beat Detroit four years ago for the Stanley Cup. That's because head coach Dan Bylsma was forced to make a switch in net during the playoffs, replacing Marc-Andre Fleury in net with Tomas Vokoun.

Bylsma faced a tough decision earlier in the playoffs, when he put Vokoun in for an ineffective Fleury prior to Game 5 of his team's opening-round matchup against the Islanders. The decision seems like a no-brainer now, but it had to be difficult at the time because Bylsma knows what Fleury is capable of this time of year, having watched him anchor the club's run to a championship in 2009.

Presently, there is no goaltender controversy because the veteran Vokoun has been spectacular since taking over the reins earlier in this postseason. The 36-year-old is 6-1 with a 1.85 goals against average and .941 save percentage since replacing Fleury, who was 2-2 with a 3.40 GAA and .891 save percentage in his four postseason outings this spring.

With Vokoun taking control of the situation between the pipes, the Pens are able to concentrate on scoring goals in bunches, something they've done better than any other NHL team this season.

Pittsburgh led the NHL with an average of 3.38 goals per game during the regular season and has only watched that number go higher during the playoffs. The Penguins enter this series with an average of 4.27 gpg in the postseason, placing them more than a goal ahead of the next-best team -- the Boston Bruins (3.17 GPG).

Pittsburgh's dominance on offense begins with the presence of Crosby and Malkin -- two of the world's most dangerous offensive weapons. But it doesn't end there because the Pens' top two centermen have had plenty of help putting the puck in the net. All told, 15 different players have scored goals for Pittsburgh in these playoffs, with 11 of them scoring two or more and six players registering more than three markers.

Crosby and Pascal Dupuis are pacing the club with seven playoff goals apiece, while winger James Neal has six tallies. Neal scored five times over the final two games against Ottawa and helped seal the series win with a hat trick in Game 5.

Malkin has four goals and 12 assists to tie defenseman Letang for the team lead in points this postseason. Letang, a Norris Trophy finalist this season, has compiled three goals and 13 assists from the back end.

Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero made some high-profile trade acquisitions around the deadline this year and those players have done their share during this postseason run. Jarome Iginla, who Shero pried away from Calgary, has four goals and eight assists to put him fourth on the team in points.

Iginla should hear his share of boos when he takes the ice in Boston, as the former Flame chose a deal that would send him to Pittsburgh instead of the Bruins.

"I chose Pitt," Iginla said recently. "I know Boston is a great team and it was one of those situations when I did it, I knew there was a big possibility that we'd be in this situation and here we are. I'm excited about the challenge."

Fellow winger Brenden Morrow, formerly of the Dallas Stars, has two goals and two assists, while defenseman Douglas Murray, who was acquired from San Jose, has two goals and an assist.

With its wealth of talent up front, it should be no surprise the Penguins are the most dangerous power-play team in this spring's playoffs. Pittsburgh is leading the NHL with a 28.3 percent success rate on the man advantage in the postseason after finishing second to Washington during the regular season.

Although shutting down the opposition isn't necessarily the Pens' forte, the club is also rated third in this postseason in penalty killing. Pittsburgh has spoiled 89.7 percent (35-of-39) of the opposition's chances on the man advantage and the Pens also have recorded two short-handed goals.

In addition to Letang's 16 points from the back end, defenseman Paul Martin also has registered two goals and seven assists in this year's postseason. Letang leads Pittsburgh's blue line in ice time during the playoffs, averaging 27 minutes of action per game and Martin is next at 26:31.

Brooks Orpik is Bylsma's best stay-at-home defenseman and he is averaging 24:41 of ice time per game this postseason. He also has one goal, one assist and a plus-six rating.

Murray, Matt Niskanen and Mark Eaton also eat up minutes on the blue line for Bylsma, who has seen his team allow an average of 2.54 goals per game in the postseason.

BOSTON BRUINS (4th seed, East)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 28-14-6

2013 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Toronto 4-3 in conference quarterfinals, defeated NY Rangers 4-1 in conference semifinals

After bowing out in the opening round last spring, the Boston Bruins are back in the conference finals for the first time since winning a Stanley Cup title in 2011.

One big change from that championship run is the absence of two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas, but Tuukka Rask is more than holding his own between the pipes.

Shortly after the Bruins lost in the first round to Washington in last year's playoffs, Thomas announced he was going to sit out the 2012-13 campaign due to personal reasons.

The 26-year-old Rask did a solid job as the No. 1 goaltender during the regular season and is 8-4 with a 2.22 goals against average and .928 save percentage in 12 postseason games. While that's not quite up to the playoff standards of Thomas, who had a 1.98 GAA and .940 save percentage en route to winning the Conn Smythe in 2011, it's been good enough to get Boston this far.

The fourth-seeded Bruins needed seven games to outlast Toronto in the opening round, but made quick work of the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, downing the Blueshirts in five games.

Boston averaged just 2.65 goals during the regular season, but are up to 3.17 gpg in the postseason.

The Bruins' top line has done most of the damage on offense, with centerman David Krejci leading the way in the playoffs with five goals and a team-high 17 points. Right winger Nathan Horton is tied with Krejci for the team lead with five goals and also has seven assists.

At 6-foot-3, 228 pounds, Milan Lucic brings a physical edge to the top line and has compiled three goals and seven assists in 12 postseason games for the B's this spring.

Boston's second unit is led by valuable two-way centerman Patrice Bergeron, but most Pittsburgh fans will have their eyes set on the line's right winger, Jaromir Jagr.

Although he hasn't played for the Penguins since 2001, the 41-year-old Jagr is still a familiar figure in the Steel City. Jagr helped Pittsburgh win consecutive Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and '92 and is second to Mario Lemieux on the club's all-time list in every major offensive statistical category.

Jagr was acquired by Boston at the deadline, but only after the club lost out to Pittsburgh in the Iginla sweepstakes. He had two goals and seven assists in 11 regular-season games with the Bruins, but has only registered four helpers in 12 postseason contests.

The Czech legend does lead all active NHLers with 193 career playoff points (78G, 115A) over 192 games.

"He doesn't need to be the Jagr of 20 years ago or 15 years ago," Bruins head coach Claude Julien said. "He needs to be the Jags that we have right now."

While Jagr has yet to score a goal in this postseason, Bergeron and diminutive left winger Brad Marchand have combined for five markers. Bergeron has three goals and four assists, while Marchand has nine point on two goals and seven helpers.

All things considered, the Bruins top-six forwards are a stronger group than it was during the championship season of 2011. The improved scoring depth has at least helped the power play, which clicked at a dismal 11.4 percent success rate in 2011, but is up to 21.9 percent (7-of-32) in this spring's playoffs.

The Bruins also have received three goals from forward Gregory Campbell in this postseason. Tyler Seguin, the second overall pick of the 2010 draft, had just one assist in seven games against Toronto in the opening round but the young winger picked up the pace with a goal and two helpers in the five games against New York.

Boston also is able to generate offense from the back end, where Zdeno Chara still looms large on the blue line. The big Slovakian had two goals and nine assists in these playoffs and is leading the club with over 29 minutes of ice time per game.

While Chara's offensive production was expected, few people saw Torey Krug's rise to prominence coming. Krug had played in three career NHL games -- none in the playoffs -- heading into this postseason and had never scored a goal.

However, due to mounting injures on defense the undrafted 22-year-old has been pressed into service this spring and has recorded four goals and one assist in five games. He became the first rookie defenseman in the history of the NHL to score four times in his first five playoff games.

Although the injured defensemen are now on the mend, Krug has earned a spot in the lineup at the start of this series.

Chara's usual skating partner, Dennis Seidenberg, sat out the first four games of the New York series with an injury before returning for Game 5.

Fellow defensemen Wade Redden and Andrew Ference, who both haven't played since the Toronto series, have been practicing with the team and could be ready for Game 1 of the conference finals.

Johnny Boychuk also has four goals from the back end in these playoffs, giving him 10 markers over 57 career postseason contests.

Although the club finished fourth in penalty killing during the regular season, that hasn't been a strong suit for Boston in these playoffs. The Bruins killed off 87.1 percent of their penalties in the regular season, but are at 81.1 percent (30-of-37) in the postseason.

MATCHUP

The last time the Penguins and Bruins faced off in the postseason was in 1992, when Jagr was just 21 years old and only beginning his standout NHL career.

Pittsburgh swept the Bruins in four games during the 1992 Wales Conference finals before going on to sweep Chicago for the franchise's second straight Cup. The Pens and Bruins have split four all-time series in the postseason, but Boston last ousted Pittsburgh from the playoffs in 1980.

The Penguins also have won six straight regular-season games against Boston, including all three encounters in 2013. However, all three tilts between the teams during this campaign were decided by only one goal.

Vokoun played two games against the Bruins this season and went 2-0 with a 1.50 GAA and .958 save percentage in those tilts. Rask, meanwhile, was 0-2 with a 2.54 GAA and .881 save percentage.

Although Boston lost all three games against the Pens in 2013, Seguin led all skaters in the series with three goals.

Julien has his work cut out for him in this series, as he tries to figure out a way to minimize scoring chances for the lethal Penguins. The Bruins are a deep team at both ends of the ice, but nobody can match Pittsburgh for depth.

Still, the Bruins say they're comfortable playing the heavy underdog to Pittsburgh in this series.

"We're fine with it," said Bergeron. "We've been through that before in previous years. I think hockey's always, it doesn't matter until you get on the ice."

Judging by the close games in this year's season series the Bruins will be able to hang with Pittsburgh for a little while, but they'll need Rask to steal a couple of games to take this one from the top-seeded Pens.

In the end, expect Pittsburgh's superior depth up front to be too much for the Bruins to handle.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Penguins in 6

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