I offer my analysis of the Eastern Conference finals Stanley Cup playoff series by analyzing the playoff series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins.
The Penguins won their 1st round playoff series in six games by defeating the New York Islanders, four games to two. However, it didn’t lack for some trepidation on the part of the Penguins, who struggled early in the series as franchise goalie, Marc Andre Fleury, struggled again for the third consecutive Stanley Cup playoff season, eventually being replaced by Tomas Vokoun in Game Five of the series. After Vokoun came in to replace Fleury, the calm, steady veteran stemmed the surge from the upstart Islanders and carried his solid play into the 2nd round against the Ottawa Senators where the Penguins won that series, four games to two, thus relegating Fleury to sporting a Penguins ball cap, signifying there was little if any chance Fleury would see any game action.
The Bruins pulled out a 1st round playoff victory from the jaws of defeat by storming back with three goals late in Game Seven against the Toronto Maple Leafs. In their 2nd round series against the New York Rangers, the Bruins had an easier time and round that round, four games to one. Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask has been a steadying presence in the net, erasing any doubts over whether he could replace playoff stalwart but controversial netminder, Tim Thomas. David Krejci led the way, offensively for the Bruins although there were plenty of offensive contributions from the entire team, particularly with their later lines.
This series also has all of the makings of a classic battle of the Bruins’ stingy defense and physical presence, its solid goaltending as well as balanced goal-scoring by all of its forward lines against a Penguins squad which has been a veritable freight train of offensive superiority, scoring a stellar four goals per game. The Penguins possess an unmatched arsenal of elite scoring talent, particularly on their first two forward lines. In fact, a strong argument can be made that the Penguins possess three of the top five forward line talents in the world in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and sniper James Neal. This playoff series also serves as a matchup of two of the NHL’s most highly regarded head coaches in the Bruins Claude Julien and the Penguins Dan Bylsma.
I offer my predictions by assessing each team’s offense, defense, special teams, goaltending and finally each squad’s “X-Factor” – the intangibles that could decide the outcome of this series. I will then conclude with my prediction as to how I see this series playing out – who wins the series and in how many games they will do it.
Here’s the Rundown:
During the regular season, the Penguins garnered home ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs by posting its best overall regular season record. They possessed the NHL’s best offense, finishing 1st overall in scoring during the regular season and continuing to do so in the playoffs. In fact, the Penguins have upped their goals scored per game from the regular season (3.35 goals per game) to four goals per game in the playoffs. Defenseman Kris Letang and Malkin have lead the way during the playoffs with 16 points, while Sidney Crosby sits just one point behind them with 15 points having played one less game after returning in Game Two of their 1st round series after sustaining a broken jaw one month before the regular season ended. Crosby leads the Penguins with seven goals scored during the playoffs, followed only by Neal who found his scoring groove late in the 2nd round series against the Senators.
The Bruins present a balanced scoring attack led by Krejci who has scored 17 points to lead all playoff scoring, followed by Nathan Horton with 12 points and elite, monstrous defenseman Zdeno Chara who has registered 11 points during the playoffs. Their remaining forward lines are solid with Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. Most surprising and somewhat alarming are the struggles of Jaromir Jagr during the playoffs, as Jagr has not scored a goal and has only four assists in 12 playoff games. The Bruins finished 13th in the regular season scoring standings, but they currently rank 2nd in playoff goal scoring with nearly three goals per game. Chara paces the blueline scoring for the Bruins, both during the regular season and in the playoffs as his defensive pairing mates have struggled to score during the playoffs.
Although the Bruins possess both a balanced and solid offensive attack, no team matches the Penguins for overall offensive firepower, so the assessment as to which team gets the advantage is quite clear…
The Bruins do possess some solid defensive players both on their defensive pairings and their forward lines with Johnny Boychuck being their primary shot-blocker during the playoffs with Dennis Seidenberg pacing the shot-blocking statistics for the Bruins with Chara finishing 3rd both in the playoffs and during the regular season. Chara aside, their remaining defensive corps have struggled during the playoffs, both in scoring as well as with puck-moving although late-season call up Torey Krug has paced their blueline goal-scoring with four goals during the playoffs. The Bruins finished 3rd in Goals Against Average (GAA) during the regular season and are 6th during the playoffs so its their defense that makes the team run so efficiently.
The Penguins defensive corps finished the regular season in the upper half of the NHL’s Goals Against Average (GAA), finishing 12th in that category and 8th overall during the playoffs. Martin and Douglas Murray are their leading shot blockers during the playoffs while Brooks Orpik was their primary shot-blocker during the regular season, nearly doubling Letang (2nd) in shots blocked. Offensively, during the regular season, Letang and Martin form a solid one-two punch from the blueline and in the playoffs. It will be interesting to see that if the Bruins ramp up their offense if the Penguins can also ramp up their commitment to defensive play.
Although the Penguins do possess a solid defense, when comparing the overall defensive units, the advantage goes to…
To assess each teams overall special teams play, while both are solid on the man advantage (Power Play) both during the regular season and during the playoffs, the Penguins elite offensive capabilities make the man advantage something the Bruins must try to mitigate from happening. The Penguins are ticking on the Power Play with a 28.3% conversion rate which ranks 1st during the playoffs while the Bruins are 5th with a 21.9% conversion rate. During the regular season, the Penguins finished 2nd on the Power Play with a 24.7% conversion rate while the Bruins were 25th during the regular season with a 14.8% conversion rate. The Penguins are lead on the Power Play by Chris Kunitz who along with Neal, registered nine Power Play goals during the regular season and leads playoff Power Play goal-scoring with three goals. The Bruins were led on the man advantage during the regular season by both Tyler Seguin and Marchand who scored four Power Play goals, each while Krug leads playoff Power Play goal-scoring with three Power Play tallies.
Regarding the Penalty Kill (PK), the Bruins finished 4th in the NHL during the regular season with a stout 87.1% kill rate whereas the Penguins finished 25th during the regular season on the PK, with a kill rate of 79.6%.
In the playoffs, however, it’s the Penguins who have been solid on the PK with an 89.7% kill rate whereas the Bruins have been solid on the PK, ranking 8th in that team playoff category with a 81.1% kill rate. If, however, convention holds during this round of the playoffs, the clear advantage on special teams goes to…
The Bruins have received continued solid play from Rask both during the playoffs and during the regular season, as Rask finished 5th in GAA during the regular season with a 2.00 GAA and an equally solid 2.22 GAA, ranking 8th amongst playoff goalies in this category. Rask also ranks 7th in Save Percentage (Save%) with a solid .928 Save%.
Vokoun, who was inserted in goal during Game Five of the Penguins 1st Round playoff series, has been stellar in net for the Penguins, posting a GAA of 1.85 for 4th overall in this category and 2nd overall in Save% with a .941 Save%. Barring an injury or substandard play by Vokoun, Fleury did finish 14th overall in GAA with a GAA of 2.39 and 18th in Save% with a .916 Save%. However, Fleury was once again awful in the 1st round series with the Islanders, posting a Save% below .900 with a .891 Save% and an equally awful 3.40 GAA.
When assessing each team’s goaltending units, this one, should Vokoun continue his solid playoff play, is a tough call but goes to…
For the Penguins, it’s all about having steady goaltending and defensive play, as their offensive prowess and depth should carry them quite far. That is, unless the Bruins can conjure up a defensive scheme that completely nullifies their plethora of weapons. For the Bruins, however, they have recently, in 2011, tasted Stanley Cup championship success, having captured the title in 2011. If they can nullify the Penguins, offensively and not engage in a track meet with the Penguins, they could surprise the favored Penguins.
One intriguing factor will be how Bylsma reacts should Vokoun struggle in the early playoff games and whether he’ll consider putting the playoff-erratic Fleury back in the Penguins net. Hot goaltending is perhaps the most essential element to Stanley Cup success and the playoffs are no time to allow a struggling goaltender to sort things out.
So when assessing the X-Factor, this one’s also very close to call, but the advantage goes to…
Advantage: Penguins (slight)
While the Bruins appear to have found their groove in their 2nd round playoff series against the Rangers, the Penguins are an explosive bunch, something the Rangers are far from. With Vokoun in the net, the Penguins appear to be quite comfortable focusing their efforts on scoring with great regularity.
If, however, the Bruins can crack the Penguins goal-scoring juggernaut and if they can rattle Vokoun in the early series games, it’s ‘game on’ as far as how the rest of the series will play out.
Given all those variables, here’s the guess:
Penguins in Six Games