After winning their Eastern Conference semifinal series in five games, the Penguins and Bruins will face off in the Eastern Conference finals starting Saturday. After battling through tough first-round matchups -- the Penguins versus the Islanders and the Bruins versus the Leafs -- both teams appear to be at the top of their game. Here’s a scouting report for what should be an entertaining, hard-fought series.
Bruins: 8-4 in playoffs. 28-14-6, 62 points, fourth in Eastern Conference, second in Northeast Division in regular season.
Penguins: 8-3 in playoffs, 36-12-0, 72 points, first in Eastern Conference, first in Atlantic Division.
Head-to-head: The Penguins were a perfect 3-0 against the Bruins in the regular season. But each game was decided by a goal, with Pittsburgh winning 3-2 twice and 2-1 in the other game.
Bruins: David Krejci enters the conference finals with an NHL-leading 17 points (5 goals and 12 assists). Krejci’s linemates -- Nathan Horton (5 goals and 7 assists) and Milan Lucic (3 goals and 7 assists) -- have both increased the level of their play in the playoffs, with Lucic really turning up his physical play. But what’s been great about the Bruins as the playoffs have gone on has been that their depth is delivering. The line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Jaromir Jagr played a big role in the five-game series win over the Rangers and the fourth line has not only been providing the energy they’re expected to, but has also chipped in with timely offense. If the third line can get going, the Bruins will be in even better shape up front.
Penguins: The Penguins are loaded with talent up front with players like Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla and James Neal. Malkin is just behind Krejci in playoff points with 16 (4 goals and 12 assists). Meanwhile Crosby -- who came back from a broken jaw in the first round -- looks better than ever with 15 points (7 goals and 8 assists) in 10 playoff games. Iginla, who is playing in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, has been revitalized and has 12 points (4 goals and 8 assists).
Edge: Penguins. While the Penguins clearly have the most dangerous offense, these two teams aren’t really that far apart on the ice right now. Through two rounds, the Penguins lead the NHL in offense, scoring 4.27 goals per game, but the Bruins have the second best offense in the playoffs, scoring 3.17 goals per game. The edge goes to the Penguins here, but it’s not as distinct as many may think.
Bruins: The Bruins' defense has become much more balanced as the playoffs have gone on in large part because of rookie sensation Torey Krug, who stole the show in the Eastern Conference semifinals with four goals and an assist in five games. Krug’s rookie teammate, Matt Bartkowski, has brought a solid all-around game, as well. But the defense is still led by minutes-eater Zdeno Chara, who leads the blue line with 11 points in the playoffs, while playing more than 29 minutes per game. With Andrew Ference nearing a return and Wade Redden ready to go, head coach Claude Julien has a wealth of defensemen to choose from in the conference finals. The Bruins have allowed 2.33 goals against per game thus far and while the Penguins have the NHL’s highest-scoring offense, this blue-line corps appears ready for the task.
Penguins: The Penguins’ forwards might get most of the attention, but their blue line is a big part of the team’s success, too. The group is solid defensively and enters the series right behind the Bruins in goals against, allowing 2.54 goals per game thus far in the playoffs. One of this group's biggest strengths is its ability to start the offensive push up the ice. No one in the league is doing that better than Kris Letang, who is tied for second in playoff points with Malkin (16 points -- 3 goals and 13 assists). Paul Martin is also chipping in offensively with nine points while playing well defensively. Former BC star Brooks Orpik remains a consistent, physical presence in his own end.
Edge: Bruins. Like the Penguins up front, the Bruins get the slight edge here and mainly because of their balance on the blue line as well as their depth. It will be interesting, though, to see if Krug can continue to take the risks that enable him to chip in offensively and not get burned by the aggressive Penguins forwards.
Bruins: Tuukka Rask, in the eyes of this scribe, has exorcised any demons that might have been left from the Bruins’ collapse against the Flyers in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals. Rask is one of the elite goalies in the NHL now and his stats in the playoffs prove it. He is 8-4 with a 2.22 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage. He has continually come up with huge saves when his teammates make mistakes and if the Bruins can pull off the upset in this series, Rask will be a big reason.
Penguins: The Penguins started the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs with Marc-Andre Fleury as their starter but he struggled in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Islanders, going 2-2 with a 3.40 goals-against average and .891 save percentage. Head coach Dan Bylsma decided it was time for a change and replaced Fleury with Tomas Vokoun, who has been dominant since then, going 6-1 with a 1.85 goals-against average and .941 save percentage. As long as Vokoun continues his stellar play there shouldn’t be any more changes and the guess here is that the Czech netminder will continue to play well.
Edge: Even. Both goalies are playing their best right now and this one is just too close to call.
Bruins: With a below-average power play for the better part of three seasons, the Bruins have learned to live off their 5-on-5 play and physical pressure. But with the arrival of Krug and some much-improved puck movement on the man-advantage, the Bruins have found some success on the power play. The Bruins are 7-for-37 on the man-advantage in the playoffs.
Penguins: The Penguins enter this series with the best power play in the playoffs. They’ve gone 13-for-46 (28.3 percent). With the offensive firepower they have that should come as no surprise and the Bruins will need to do all they can to stay out of the box.
Edge: Penguins. This is where the talent up front for the Pens really comes into play. There’s just too much talent there for the Bruins to spend a lot of time killing penalties.
Bruins: Since Claude Julien has been coach of the Bruins, the penalty kill has always been a strength. But the penalty kill has struggled some in the playoffs, which the Bruins will need to fix against the Penguins. Boston has allowed seven power-play goals on 37 attempts, which isn’t good enough.
Penguins: Surprisingly, the Penguins have had a better penalty kill in the playoffs than the Bruins, allowing just four goals on 39 attempts.
Edge: Penguins. This is another one that’s really too close to call, but based on the way both units are playing right now, the Penguins get the nod here. That could change very quickly, though, if the Bruins’ penalty kill gets back to normal.
Bruins: Julien had to do some adjusting on the fly in the Eastern Conference semifinals with defensemen Dennis Seidenberg, Ference and Redden all missing time. He did a fantastic job of assimilating two rookies -- Bartkowski and Krug -- into the lineup. He did so by showing confidence in them and allowing them to play their game. Julien also continues to successfully shuffle his lines within games and at times from game to game. This is why he is one of the most successful coaches in Bruins history.
Penguins: The move from Fleury to Vokoun was bold and it was just another example of why Bylsma has become one of the elite coaches in the NHL. He also does a good job of distributing ice time between his superstars and mixing and matching their talents.
Edge: Even. While I tend to side with Julien, and think he doesn’t get enough credit, both he and Bylsma have done splendid jobs with their teams thus far. This series promises to be a chess match between these two bench bosses.
Prediction: Penguins in 7. NHL fans couldn’t have asked for a better matchup, really. From the recent history between the two teams with Matt Cooke and the Iginla trade to their contrasting styles, this promises to be a great series. In the end, though, the Penguins' skill should win out. But it will take seven games and maybe even extended time in Game 7 to decide who represents the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup finals.