The Eastern Conference Final features a clash in styles with the up-tempo, high-octane Pittsburgh Penguins going against the physical and aggressive-on-the-forecheck Boston Bruins.
"To me, the two keys in the series are, can Pittsburgh play fast, play with pace, and can Boston force Pittsburgh to defend?" NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk told NHL.com. "Both teams want the puck, and if you have the puck you dictate that."
Getting the puck against the Bruins isn't easy. Just ask the New York Rangers, who probably feel like they're still chasing it days after being eliminated in five games.
Then again, slowing down the Penguins down and forcing them to play defense is like trying to catch a cheetah in the wild. The Ottawa Senators know the feeling -- and they don't like it. Those 13 goals Pittsburgh scored in the final two games of the conference semifinals overwhelmed the Senators.
"[The Penguins'] firepower is so good," NHL Network and TSN analyst Craig Button told NHL.com. "They have so many weapons."
With time to spare before the series begins Saturday in Pittsburgh at 8 p.m. ET (NBC, CBC, RDS), we decided to turn to Olczyk, Button and NBC's inside-the-glass commentator Pierre McGuire for help in breaking it down.
We asked each of them five questions -- and mostly got different answers:
Who has impressed you the most on the Penguins?
Button went with goalie Tomas Vokoun, who came in for ineffective Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the conference quarterfinals against the New York Islanders and has gone 6-1 with one shutout, a 1.85 goals-against average and .941 save percentage.
"Could he be the Pittsburgh Penguins' Cam Ward?" Button said. "Let's not forget what Cam Ward did when he won the Stanley Cup in 2006 with Carolina. Martin Gerber started the series and Cam Ward came in and bailed him out. Anybody can say there is no pressure, but, oh yeah, there's a lot of pressure. And it hasn't been a case of Vokoun just getting all the goal support -- to me, he has been fabulous."
Olczyk and McGuire looked at the Penguins forwards, but didn't go with favorites Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Olczyk took Chris Kunitz, and McGuire said he has been most impressed by Pascal Dupuis.
Kunitz has nine points in the playoffs; Dupuis has seven goals and 10 points.
"When you look at a guy that kind of brings everything together and a guy that can do a lot of everything, I look at Chris Kunitz," Olczyk said. "Kunitz is that type of player who maybe isn't overly large physically (6 feet, 193 pounds), but he plays big and he has really good skill with the ability to change the momentum in the game.
"I don't think people realize how good he is. You can make him any piece of the puzzle you want and he'll become such an important part."
McGuire credited Dupuis' ability on the penalty kill and in the offensive zone for swaying his answer, but also said defenseman Paul Martin has impressed him.
Who has impressed you the most on the Bruins?
The three analysts combined to offer six names. Rookie defenseman Torey Krug, who scored four goals in five games against the Rangers, was brought up by Button and McGuire.
"Torey Krug is a phenomenal story," McGuire said. "He reminds me a lot of Brian Rafalski and a lot of Don Sweeney. Smaller guys like that can come in and take charge because they're such good skaters and good puck movers, so they make big differences in games."
Button's top-two picks were wing Brad Marchand and defenseman Johnny Boychuk. He said he chose Boychuk because he's getting his shot through and is initiating on the defensive end. Button chose Marchand because "he just looks dangerous every time he's on the ice."
Marchand has nine points in the playoffs.
"They call him the 'Little Ball of Hate,' but when you play with him he's kind of the 'Little Ball of Love' because you want that guy on your side," Button said. "Those are the types of players you want to play with you."
Olczyk went with wing Milan Lucic, who has found his game after a sub-par regular season. Lucic has 10 points in 12 playoff games.
"He has really been the engine there," Olczyk said. "The more he goes straight-ahead, the more effective he is. If you're defending him, you want him to get moving east and west, where the Acela slows down a bit. But when he's going straight ahead, I'm sorry, you're not going to break his stride."
In addition to Krug, McGuire mentioned fourth-line forwards Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille. They combined for four goals against the Rangers, including two game-winners.
"That fourth line has been so dynamic," McGuire said, giving a nod to Shawn Thornton as well. "They dominated the Rangers series. I thought that would be the X-factor in the Rangers series and it was. It was a huge issue for the Rangers. They had no answer for that line."
What are some reasons the Penguins could win the series?
Olczyk was the most succinct with his answer. He needed eight words.
"They're faster and I think they're deeper finishers," he said.
Button and McGuire each used the word "firepower" in describing the Penguins.
"Malkin and Crosby are not just good centers, they're the best in the world," Button said. "But beyond them there is Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Jarome Iginla, a really good, functioning third line. I think their defense has found a rhythm. Kris Letang isn't a Norris Trophy finalist by accident. We saw that in the last round. They have their game together."
McGuire touched on the Penguins' power play, which is clicking at 28.3 percent in the playoffs. He called it "lethal," but he also spoke about the veterans the Penguins acquired before the NHL Trade Deadline -- Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen -- and how their motivation to win the Stanley Cup is helping drive Pittsburgh.
"They know this is an unbelievable opportunity, and a lot of times those guys raise their games," McGuire said. "That's one of the reasons why [Penguins general manager] Ray Shero went out and got those guys. Those guys want to win and they know what it takes to win."
What are some reasons the Bruins could win the series?
Button didn't hesitate when he was asked this question. He didn't take a breath answering either.
"They have 12 forwards that just wear you down," he said. "They all come at you in different ways. They come at you with skill. They come at you with speed. They come at you with smarts. They come at you with physical play. They're determined, tenacious. There is just never a time when you get a rest against Boston's 12 forwards, never.
"Let's not kid ourselves, if not for [Rangers goalie] Henrik Lundqvist that series against the Rangers could have gotten ugly. Those 12 forwards pose a constant and consistent problem."
Olczyk talked along the same lines.
"They can force Pittsburgh to defend, and that's the biggest question mark the Penguins have," he said. "Can the Penguins defend the sneaky speed of Boston and the big depth, the big guys on Boston? Can they defend that for a seven-game series?"
It'll be more difficult if defenseman Zdeno Chara is the physical and intimidating force he is supposed to be. McGuire said he is the reason the Bruins can win the series.
"He can eliminate stars," McGuire said. "The fact that they have the ability to play a shutdown guy like [Patrice] Bergeron against Crosby is big. [David] Krejci is a very underrated player. They have a tremendous fourth line that we've already talked about. And they have the X-factor in the series in Chara. If Chara takes over, it becomes very hard for Pittsburgh."
Who do you think will win and why?
Only Button wanted to answer this question. He chose Pittsburgh.
"When I look at what the Toronto Maple Leafs did with their speed and quickness and how it put the Bruins back on their heels, I think the Penguins can do that a lot better because they have more skill," Button said. "That is the template Dan Bylsma will use."
The other two bailed out of giving an answer.
"I'm going to stick to picking horses," Olczyk said. "But I will say that I don't see this series being anything less than six games, I really don't."
McGuire said he never picks a winner because he has to stand between the benches during games and doesn't think it's right to make a prediction based on his positioning.
"I will tell you this, as much fun as Detroit and Chicago was to watch, I think this one has a chance to be as much fun or more fun to watch," he said. "I coached in the series back in the early '90s and I can tell you that there was never really a lot of bad blood between Pittsburgh and Boston, but after Ulfie [Samuelsson] got Cam Neely, that changed the whole complexion of that thing going forward. Now you have the Matt Cooke hit on Marc Savard, and that just added more fuel to the fire. There is a lot of real energy in this thing."
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