Five Items That Can Decide Eastern Final Game 1
PITTSBURGH -- The Eastern Conference Final has been on a slow simmer for a week.
The fourth-seeded Boston Bruins and top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins have been idle for at least seven days each. Though that rest has allowed for players to get healthier and for the teams to better prepare for each other, it also allowed the series to be dissected in every way possible.
But with Game 1 finally on the horizon Saturday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS) at Consol Energy Center, it is clear there are some discernible tipping points.
Here are five areas that should be watched closely; they will have a profound impact on Game 1:
1. Match game
One of the most interesting facets of Game 1 will be what matchups each team settles for as the game develops. Will the coaches try to go top line against top line or checking line against top line?
As the home coach, Dan Bylsma gets the last change after every whistle. Generally, he rolls his four lines and only worries about getting his shutdown defense pair -- Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin -- against the opposition line he deems most dangerous.
As the visiting coach, Claude Julien must declare first and could find himself in some unfavorable forward-line matches. That disadvantage is somewhat negated by his ability to deploy his defensemen as stoppers. He can split up his big pairing of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg at times to counter Pittsburgh's ability to send out either the Sidney Crosby line or the Evgeni Malkin line.
"You know you are not going to get the perfect matchup on the road," Julien said on the eve of the series. "Teams switch on the fly and everything else. I don't know that anyone gets that perfect matchup. There's a bit of juggling from coaches and how adamant they are about the matchups and everything else. I know for a fact it is a lot easier as far as defensemen are concerned than lines against lines. When you have to change maybe just one or two guys as opposed to a whole line it's a lot better.
"Sometimes you have to have trust in your lines that they can do the job and we've seen it where our 4th line has been paired up with the other team's top line and they make sure they do their job properly and don't give [up] scoring chances."
2. Forecheck mate
The Penguins absolutely shredded the Ottawa Senators in the previous round by getting the puck behind their defense and establishing a forecheck. Boston forward Milan Lucic admitted Friday that the Penguins' ability to get in on the forecheck could be one of the determining factors in the series.
"They are a team that likes to get in on the forecheck and play with a lot of pressure and confidence," Lucic said. "I think their forecheck gets overlooked. They have some really good skaters who like to be physical and be first on the puck. And, obviously, once they get the puck in the offensive zone, they know how to make plays."
Lucic says to counter the effectiveness of Pittsburgh's forecheck, his team must concentrate on making effective breakouts from their own zone, be first on Pittsburgh's dump-ins and take away space in the neutral zone.
A telling point will be how effective Boston is at taking away the stretch pass favored by Pittsburgh to start the attack. Pittsburgh's defense likes to make long passes to the center red line where a waiting forward tips the puck deep into the opponent's zone to start the forecheck.
3. Neutral-zone party
Because of its preference for the stretch pass, the Penguins do not spend as much time in the neutral zone as many other teams. They want to get the puck deep and force the defense to turn and chase it.
The Bruins want to slow down Pittsburgh's transition game as much as possible and force the Penguins to spend more time in the middle of the ice. A primary objective will be to take away the paths along the side walls that the Penguins use to dump in pucks.
The longer the Penguins are in the neutral zone, the longer the Boston defenders can face the attacking forwards -- and that's a far stronger method of defending the talented Pittsburgh forwards.
4. Defense never rests
Both teams love to generate offense from the blue line.
Boston has 13 goals from its defensemen, as well as 30 points and 151 shots. The Bruins like to have their defenseman fire away from the points and put traffic in front of the goalies, hoping for deflections and rebounds.
Pittsburgh is more reliant on its forwards, but there is no shortage of offensive ability on the blue line. Kris Letang leads all defensemen in scoring and the defenders, as a whole, have eight goals, 35 points and 85 shots.
Both teams will have to figure out how to neutralize the time and space that the opposing defensemen thrive on without giving more space to attacking forwards.
5. Physical fitness
This is going to be a physical series. Both teams like to play the body. In addition, there will be a ton of emotion in this series; there's definitely some bad blood between these teams.
The fact that both have been sitting for at least a week doesn't help as each side will be looking to send early messages.
"I think [Boston is] known for being a physical team, but there is only so many hits you can get in a game, opportunities to do it; so I'm sure they are not going to pass them up," Crosby said. "With that being said, I don't feel like other teams necessarily have either. I think that is just part of playing playoff hockey."
Both teams will have to control their fury. Penalties could be disastrous in this series. Pittsburgh's League-leading power play has been lethal throughout the postseason and Boston's power play has become much more effective since defenseman Torey Krug has been put into the lineup.
Neither team will want to give away free opportunities to score.