Tale of the Tape: Pens Hold Upper Hand in East Finals
While all the history and other storylines are intriguing as the Eastern Conference Finals approach, the series will still be decided on the ice.
So, it is interesting to note that the Pittsburgh Penguins went through the Boston Bruins at this stage in the march to each of their first two Stanley Cups. It's fun to talk about Jaromir Jagr making another return to the Steel City, this time as a black hat -- actually a black helmet.
But as Game 1 of this best-of-7 series looms tantalizingly on the horizon, it is important to remember that the current editions of the Penguins and Bruins will decide what happens and who advances to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.
How do these two teams match up in what should be a heavyweight bout of a series?
We had four staff writers from NHL.com, who have been covering the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs since Day One, look at several key categories and break the series down that way to see if we could figure out if either team held an initial advantage. NHL.com senior managing editor Shawn P. Roarke, LNH.com managing editor Arpon Basu, NHL.com senior writer Dan Rosen and NHL.com writer Corey Masisak weighed in with their opinions.
Here is what we found:
There was no argument on the panel in this category as Pittsburgh took all four votes.
It is nearly impossible to argue with the depth the Penguins possess up front -- especially in a top six that features Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Jarome Iginla and Pascal Dupuis.
But their depth extends beyond that, as they have a near-perfect distribution of defensive and physical players on their bottom two lines. Quite literally, there is no break from the pressure as Pittsburgh rolls its lines during the course of a game.
With that said, the Bruins' forwards are to be dismissed at one's own peril. David Krejci has been as dominant as any forward this postseason. Patrice Bergeron is an elite two-way threat and Milan Lucic is the best power forward in hockey when he is on his game. Boston's fourth line, meanwhile, proved to be a difference-maker in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The New York Rangers had no answers when Shawn Thornton, Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell hopped over the boards.
Advantage: Pittsburgh (4-0-0)
For the majority of the panel, this was a no-brainer in the favor of Boston. Shawn was the only dissenter.
It's hard to argue with a team that features Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg as its one-two punch. Plus, it is a unit that becomes even more dangerous if Andrew Ference can return to the lineup soon. That's without even mentioning wunderkind Torey Krug, who has been a goal machine since his insertion into the lineup last round.
But the Pittsburgh defense is no joke either, even if it is often hidden in the shadows of the all-star offense. Kris Letang is a Norris Trophy finalist who is dominating the playoffs offensively. Brooks Orpik is a prototypical shut-down defender while Paul Martin has returned to the two-way threat that made him such a hot commodity a few years back.
Advantage: Boston (3-1)
This is a true toss-up category. Only one voter -- Arpon -- was willing to pick a clear-cut favorite and he chose Tuukka Rask. The other three panelists argued it was too close to call.
The numbers suggest it might be a dead-heat.
Pittsburgh goalie Tomas Vokoun actually has the better numbers, but the stigma of inheriting the No. 1 job remains. Still, there is no denying that in his seven starts, Vokoun has been unbelievable as he plays to a 1.85 goals-against average and .941 save percentage.
Rask, though, has not only been doing it all playoffs, but throughout the season as well. He has a 2.22 GAA and .932 save percentage in a dozen outings.
Advantage: Boston (1-0-3)
The margin is again razor-thin here and no winner emerged as the vote was split with two ties and one vote each for Claude Julien and Dan Bylsma.
Julien, just two years removed from a Stanley Cup triumph, has kept the Bruins moving forward through a stumble at the end of the season and a near-fatal misstep against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round. He knows how to refocus his team after setbacks and can be an astute line matcher as a series progresses.
Many see Bylsma as an afterthought on a team loaded with supremely skilled stars, but his fingerprints are all over this run by Pittsburgh. The most compelling exhibit is his decision to switch goalies in Game 5 of the first round. But he has also made several adroit lineup decisions throughout the first two rounds.
Advantage: None (1-1-2)
Not surprisingly, this was a clean sweep for Pittsburgh, which is receiving lethal performances from both its power play and penalty kill.
The Penguins have scored 13 man-advantage goals this postseason and allowed just four on the penalty kill. That plus-9 special teams advantage is the best in the tournament. When the Penguins are able to enter the zone and move the puck on the power play, it becomes a unit that is almost impossible to defend.
The Bruins, by comparison, have merely broken even during special teams play so far, scoring a surprisingly high (for them) seven power-play goals, but also allowing seven on the penalty kill.
Advantage: Pittsburgh (4-0)
Other than the defensemen vote, this is where Boston enjoyed its biggest advantage. Two voters gave Boston the nod here, while the other two deemed it a tie.
The Bruins clearly have had something special going since rallying from a three-goal deficit in the third period of Game 7 against Toronto to turn a 4-1 deficit into a 5-4 overtime victory. That momentum carried over into the Rangers series, and Boston appears to be getting virtually every bounce of the puck. Plus, the Bruins have weathered the storm of seeing three veteran defensemen go down this postseason. Now, the Bruins are returning to health with the confidence that they can be even better in the third round.
Advantage: Boston (2-0-2)
Despite taking a few categories, none of the NHL.com panelists could envision a scenario in which Boston holds the overall advantage in this series.
The top-seeded Penguins have been too strong during the past seven games -- their only loss during that stretch came in double overtime -- to suggest that they are ripe for an upset. Until Boston proves it has the talent and the game plan to negate some of Pittsburgh's inherent advantages, sticking with the favorite was a universal exercise for the NHL.com panelists.
Advantage: Pittsburgh (4-0)