May 29, 2013

NHL Eastern Conference Finals Preview

By - Brad Heerschop

And then there were five. What you might not know is that the five teams still alive in this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs also represent the last five Stanley Cup champions.

With the Western Finals matchup yet to be determined (Game 7 between the Red Wings and Blackhawks is later tonight), let's take a look into what has already been decided; an Eastern Conference Finals showdown pitting the Boston Bruins against the Pittsburgh Penguins, in a series that is sure to be extremely exciting as well as unpredictable.

Photo by: Getty Images
The Penguins were the Eastern Conference's best team this year, locking down the No. 1 seed and home ice advantage throughout their road to Lord Stanley. In this year's playoffs, the Pens have been tested, but have prevailed mightily.

Pittsburgh is 8-3 so far this postseason, beating the New York Islanders in 6 games and the Ottawa Senators in 5. The Penguins were absolutely dominant in the final 2 games of their series against Ottawa, outscoring the Senators 13-5. In fact, I don't remember ever seeing a team outplay another at this level the way Pittsburgh did Ottawa in games 4 and 5.

In 11 games the Penguins have outscored their opponents 47 to 28, an average of 4.27 to 2.54 per contest. Defensively they had left something to be desired earlier in these playoffs, but now seem to have figured it out both on defense and between the pipes.

Backup netminder Tomas Vokoun is doing what Marc-Andre Fleury couldn't; preventing the puck from getting behind him. His goals against average (GAA) is just 1.85 this postseason, good enough for 3rd overall.

While their defense has improved, the Penguins still butter their bread with their ability to score goals. They have been the NHL's highest scoring club in these playoffs, and many players have made significant offensive contributions.

To name a few, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby are 2nd, 3rd and 4th, respectively, in points this postseason. Letang's 13 assists are tops in that department. Crosby and winger Pascal Dupuis share the NHL's playoff goal scoring lead, with 7 each.

The Consol Energy Center will be abuzz during this series, and rightly so. This Pittsburgh team is good from top-to-bottom. The Pens are 1st overall in power play percentage (28.3%), and 3rd in killing penalties (89.7%).

The only way to beat a team that is this complete is to get them out of their element. Teams need to make the Penguins play their game, or they will find themselves in a big hole very quickly.

The Bruins finished the season as the Eastern Conference's 4th seed, narrowly losing their division to the Montreal Canadiens. Had they managed to muster just one more victory this season, they would have finished in their rightful place as the East's 2nd seed.

Boston is 8-4 in these playoffs, beating the Toronto Maple Leafs in 7 games and the New York Rangers in 5. They were on the brink of elimination in that first round matchup against the Leafs, trailing by 3 goals in the final period of Game 7. Epic comeback or epic collapse? Either way, the Bruins moved on and then made short work of a pretty good New York squad.

In their 12 games, the Bruins have edged the opposition in overall goals by a margin of 38 to 28, an average of 3.17 to 2.33. While they haven't been anywhere near as flashy offensively as Pittsburgh has been, they are still the 2nd highest scoring team of this year's postseason.

Defensively and in goal, the Bruins have not been stellar, but they have certainly been good enough. While goaltender Tuukka Rask hasn't exactly been racking in the stats, he still is tied for the top spot in the NHL in the only category that matters -- wins, with 8. Rask is also 3-1 in the crucial overtime games that Boston has faced.

The offense lives and dies (it seems) with David Krejci. The Czech center leads all NHL players with 17 playoff points, a big reason the Bruins are still alive. Nathan Horton sits 5th in total points, and captain Zdeno Chara has contributed 11 points, 2nd among defensemen.

The Bruins boast the top 3 plus/minus players in the NHL this postseason, and 4 of the top 5. They have been decent on the power play (5th overall at 21.9%), but need to pick up their penalty kill which is 8th best (81.1%).

The Bruins and Pens squared off against one another three times during the regular season, with Pittsburgh coming out on top each time. It's worth noting, however, that all three games were decided by only one goal. This is the same type of hockey I expect to see in this crucial series. It should be very high scoring and could go either way, mainly because of the unpredictability that high scoring affairs bring.

These two Eastern powerhouses sit atop almost every major individual and team based statistical category. However, numbers do not win Stanley Cups. Grit, determination and hard-nosed play do. 10 points separated these clubs in the regular season, but none of that matters now. It's just a race to 4 wins at this point, and I expect this series to go at least 6 games.

In the end, my money is on Pittsburgh, but my heart is with Boston. Whatever happens, I doubt this Eastern Conference Final will be anything but great playoff hockey. Enjoy.

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