There were two complete teams in the Eastern Conference this season.
They will be meeting for the right to play for the Stanley Cup.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are the best offensive team in the Eastern Conference by a wide margin. For the most part, they also play solid defense. The only exception came against the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs, when the Penguins gave the upstart challengers plenty of room to operate their offense and a butter-soft goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury to shoot at.
That changed when head coach Dan Bylsma pulled Fleury and inserted Tomas Vokoun in net. The Penguins returned to dominance at that point.
The Boston Bruins were as strong as any team in the league during the first two months of the season—with the possible exception of the Chicago Blackhawks—but they could not sustain that play in March and April.
However, the Bruins have size, strength, power and explosiveness. They also play exceptional defense and have one of the most underrated goaltenders in the league in Tuukka Rask.
The Bruins are underdogs, but they come into this series with full confidence after beating two Original Six rivals in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The Penguins were challenged in the first round by the New York Islanders. It took overtime of the sixth game to eliminate the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, and if head coach Dan Bylsma had not replaced leaky goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with Tomas Vokoun, the Pens could have suffered a humiliating upset.
That move did work, and the Pens steadied themselves after that. They dominated the gritty Ottawa Senators in five games, as the explosive force of the Penguins' dynamic offense came into play. Sidney Crosby may be wearing a full shield to protect his damaged jaw, but he leads the NHL in playoff goals with seven. Evgeni Malkin has done it on both ends of the ice, and he is tied with Kris Letang for the Penguins' lead in points with 16.
The Bruins were pushed to the limit in the first round by the Toronto Maple Leafs. They blew a 3-1 lead in the series and found themselves down by three goals with just over 10 minutes to play in the seventh game. They scored a goal to get within two and then scored two goals with goalie Tuukka Rask pulled to send the game into overtime. They won it in the extra session on a goal by stellar all-around center Patrice Bergeron.
A pitch-battle with the New York Rangers was expected in the conference semifinals, but it never developed. The Bruins were the better and stronger team and defeated the Rangers in five games.
While the Bruins are not an offensive juggernaut, head coach Claude Julien rolled four lines throughout the series and got a major contribution from an unknown rookie defenseman in Torey Krug to get the best of All-World goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
Start with Jarome Iginla. When the Calgary Flames finally decided to move their longtime star prior to the trade deadline, it appeared that he would be going to Boston since Calgary general manager Jay Feaster had a deal with Boston GM Peter Chiarelli in place.
However, Iginla had to approve the deal. He did not want to go to Boston because he thought Pittsburgh was the better destination. The Bruins ended up acquiring former Penguins legend Jaromir Jagr from the Dallas Stars.
Will the Bruins pay back Iginla for his insolence? Will Iginla punish the Bruins even further? Will Jagr find his scoring touch and hurt his old team?
How will the Bruins' depth play out against the Penguins stars? Head coach Claude Julien got good production from his fourth line of Gregory Campbell, Dan Paille and Shawn Thornton against the Rangers, but how will they do against the Penguins' skilled players?
The Penguins stood up to the aggressive Ottawa Senators with few problems. However, the Bruins are bigger and hit harder. That's going to be an issue as the series progresses.
The Penguins' star power can be overwhelming. Since Dan Bylsma can send out star forwards like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Pascal Dupuis and Iginla shift after shift, the Bruins will be taxed as never before.
Finally, the Bruins found their magic man in rookie defenseman Torey Krug. He scored four goals against the Rangers because of his blistering slap shot, skating ability and sensational hockey instincts. The Bruins need Krug to continue his run against the Penguins.
Sidney Crosby is the best player in hockey. Crosby is still feeling the impact of the broken jaw he suffered March 30, but that hasn't stopped him from putting the puck in the net. Crosby has already scored 15 points, and he is not yet at his best. If he can find his full stride against the Bruins, it may be too much for them to overcome.
Evgeni Malkin already has one Conn Smythe Trophy on his mantle, and he could have another by the time the postseason is over. Malkin (16 points) is one of the most dynamic players in the game. He can dominate with explosive one-on-one moves and his wicked shooting touch, but he will also deliver some of the crispest passes in the game. Malkin has also shown the ability to play in all three zones during the postseason.
Kris Letang is one of the most dynamic defensemen in the game. He can blast the puck from the point or move into the prime scoring areas from his spot on the blue line. He is not a slouch in the defensive end. Letang has a quick stick and excels at breaking up plays with his speed and anticipation. He has scored 16 points in the postseason with a plus-seven rating.
David Krejci is not considered one of the game's superstars, and he certainly doesn't compare with the Penguins' top pair of Crosby and Malkin. However, he is a proven playoff performer who leads the NHL in postseason scoring with 17 points. Krejci has the great vision and patience that allows him to wait a split second longer than the defense or opposing goalie so he can make the perfect shot or pass. Very high hockey IQ.
Patrice Bergeron is perhaps the hardest working and smartest player on the Bruins. He is a gifted defensive player who is dominant in the faceoff circle, winning 63.5 percent of his faceoffs in the postseason. He is a skilled and gritty offensive performer. Bergeron scored the tying goal in the final minute of regulation against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the seventh game and the winner in overtime.
Zdeno Chara sets the tone for the Bruins' rock-ribbed defense with his thunderous body checks and his skill at moving the puck out of his own zone. Opponents can be successful if they hit Chara before he has a chance to respond with his own check. But if they fail, Chara will punish them. He also has the hardest shot in the game, and that can intimidate potential shot-blockers and goaltenders.
Replacing starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with Tomas Vokoun was the move that head coach Dan Bylsma had to make in the first round when it looked like Fleury couldn't have stopped a beach ball.
Bylsma knew that if Vokoun could give the Pens even average goaltending, that would be all the team needed to steady itself. Vokoun has been much better than average. His numbers have been sensational. He has a 1.85 goals-against average, a .941 save percentage and one shutout.
Vokoun will scramble and throw his body around in an acrobatic manner to keep the puck out of the net. If he can sustain this level of play, he will be tough to beat.
Tuukka Rask does not usually get compared to goaltending icons like Henrik Lundqvist or Jonathan Quick, but he is a star goaltender who is remarkably consistent. He uses his size, positioning, instincts and athletic ability to win the battle.
His save on Ryan Callahan's breakaway in the third period clinched the Bruins' fifth-game victory over the Rangers. Rask has a 2.22 GAA and a .928 save percentage.
His stumble in Game 4 on Carl Hagelin's soft backhander was merely a fluke and did not concern head coach Claude Julien or any of his Bruins teammates.
Vokoun has been excellent in the postseason, but it seems likely that his weaknesses will eventually come to the surface.
The Penguins have a big edge on the Bruins in special-teams play.
The Penguins are converting 28.3 percent of their power-play chances, while the Bruins are at 21.9 percent. That's not a surprise.
The Penguins are killing off 89.7 percent of their short-handed situations, while the Bruins are stopping 81.1 percent of their short-handed situations. That is a surprise, because the Bruins are usually one of the best penalty-killing teams in the league but are being outperformed by the Penguins.
In most series, the Bruins tend to be the better five-on-five team and that's why they have gotten away with a less-than-impressive power play. That's not the case against the Penguins.
Pittsburgh has a better scoring ratio (1.43) in five-on-five situations than Boston (1.35). If that holds in this series, the special-teams differential will overwhelm the Bruins.
The Penguins are a better offensive team than the Bruins. As long as they play competent defense and continue to get solid play in goal by Tomas Vokoun, they should have an excellent chance to beat the Bruins.
The Penguins must match the Bruins' physical play. When the Bruins start hammering away with big forwards like Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton and the defense asserts itself with the nastiness of Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk, Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid, the Penguins must hit back.
If they don't and they start giving the Bruins space like they did in the first round against the Islanders, the Bruins will have a chance to take over the series.
However, the Penguins have remarkable skill, and they are hungry to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since raising the Cup in 2009. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have the skill to punish any opponent, including Boston.
The Bruins have a lot to overcome if they are going to beat the Penguins. During the regular season, the Bruins lost all three meetings with the Penguins.
Head coach Claude Julien must make his team watch the tape of those three games and then tell his team that it can't play timid hockey if it hopes to beat Pittsburgh.
The Bruins played as if they were trying to hold on against Pittsburgh. They got two early goals in the first meeting in early March and then stopped playing offensive hockey. They concentrated on defense and allowed the Penguins to come with wave after wave of pressure. That proved fatal in the late stages of the third period.
The Bruins must play physical hockey. That means powerful left wing Milan Lucic must throw his weight around and punish opponents in the corner. When Lucic is skating and hitting, the rest of the Bruins follow his lead.
The Bruins must have a relentless attack if they are going to break Penguins goalie Tomas Vokoun. They cannot sit back if they get a lead or the score is tied. They must storm the Penguins' net and set screen after screen in front of Vokoun if they are going to win.
This should be a seven-game series if both teams play their best hockey.
The Penguins must continue to get excellent goaltending from Tomas Vokoun, who started the postseason on the bench.
The Bruins cannot play tentatively against a team that dominated them during the regular season.
The Penguins have the edge in offense and creativity; the Bruins have the edge in strength and defense.
While the Penguins would have the advantage of the playing the seventh game in the Consol Energy Center, the Bruins' edge in goal would surface in the final game. Rask is much more likely to play his best game when everything is on the line than Vokoun, who will eventually find his level.
Vokoun is a solid backup goalie, but that's it. He can be beaten when it matters most.
The Bruins win in seven games.