Pittsburgh Penguins' 5 Most Important Players in Eastern Conference Final

Steve Rodenbaugh@rodeyslContributor IIIMay 31, 2013

Pittsburgh Penguins' 5 Most Important Players in Eastern Conference Final

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    Having advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins will face their toughest challenge yet in the Boston Bruins.

    While the Pens won all three regular-season matchups with the Bruins, each game was decided by a single goal and was a tight-checking and low-scoring contest.  That was then, this is now.  With the two teams averaging a combined 7.44 goals per game and with six of the top seven playoff scorers taking part, this series figures to be anything but low scoring.

    If the Pens are to continue their march to the Stanley Cup, they will need their stars to rise to the occasion. With that in mind, here's a look at who the five most important Penguins will be in the Eastern Conference Finals:

No. 5: Jarome Iginla

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    Although many observers believed that Jarome Iginla's best days were behind him, his play thus far in the playoffs has shown he can still be a force. 

    With 12 points in 11 games thus far, Iginla is tied for fifth among playoff scoring leaders and his booming shot on the point has given the Pens' power play an added dimension.

    Having chosen Pittsburgh over Boston at the trade deadline, Iginla figures to be a target for both Bruins players and fans alike.  In his only visit to Boston in a Penguins' uniform on April 20th, Iginla squared off against Nathan Horton of the Bruins early in the game; sending him to the dressing room with an injury.  Later in the game, he added insult to injury by scoring on the power play to quiet the crowd in a 3-2 Penguins' win.

    If Iginla can continue to provide the Penguins with a net-front presence and timely-goal scoring, he may move one step closer to the Stanley Cup and prove once and for all that choosing the Penguins over the Bruins was the right decision. 

No. 4: Kris Letang

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    Although Boston's Zdeno Chara figures to be the most-talked-about defenseman in the Eastern Conference Finals, Kris Letang's importance in this series cannot be overstated.

    Currently tied with Evgeni Malkin for second in playoff scoring, Letang has been the main catalyst for the Penguins' offense so far this postseason and his ability to carry the puck out of the Pens' defensive zone may be the key in neutralizing the Bruins' forecheck. 

    In a battle of two evenly-matched teams where special teams could be the deciding factor, Letang's prowess on the power play (two goals and seven assists in 11 games) could prove fatal to a Bruins team that is prone to taking bad penalties.

    Although he is far from being the biggest defenseman in the series, Kris Letang may in fact be the most important one and it's hard to imagine the Penguins advancing without him having a great series.

No. 3: Sidney Crosby

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    Having been denied the Art Ross Trophy as the league leaders in points by an injury, Sidney Crosby seems intent on adding a Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP in the playoffs to his resume.

    Tied for the lead in goals with seven and standing fourth in points with 15, he seems well on his way to doing just that.  Centering the highest-scoring line in the playoffs (18 goals in 11 games), Crosby and linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis will undoubtedly see a lot of Bruins defensemen Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg when they step on the ice. 

    Although he has faced tough defensemen in previous rounds such as Mark Streit of the Islanders and Chris Phillips of the Senators, the Bruins present a whole level of physicality and Crosby's effectiveness in the offensive zone may be the main factor in determining who wins this series.

    Should Crosby struggle early against the Bruins, don't be surprised to see Jarome Iginla inserted on his line to provide a physical element and a net-front presence; something the Pens have not had since Bill Guerin retired in 2010.

No. 2: Evgeni Malkin

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    While the idea that the reigning NHL MVP could be overlooked in the playoffs seems difficult to believe, that is exactly the case with Evgeni Malkin.

    While he has not had the breakout games that James Neal enjoyed against the Senators or received the accolades that Tomas Vokoun has for his play since the Islanders series, Evgeni Malkin is quietly having a Conn Smythe-worthy postseason and stands second in playoff points with 16. 

    Although he has only tallied four goals thus far, Malkin has been a force in the offensive zone and his willingness to play in traffic and take the puck to the net has created space and scoring chances for linemates Jarome Iginla and James Neal who have combined for 10 goals in 11 games.

    Since most expect the Bruins to matchup Zdeno Chara against Sidney Crosby's line, the play of Malkin and his line will be crucial if the Pens are to survive the Bruins and move on the Stanley Cup Finals.

No.1: Tomas Vokoun

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    Since starting Game 5 of the first round, Tomas Vokoun has been nothing short of dominant and, if not for a defensive lapse by his teammates at the end of regulation in Game 3 against the Senators, he would be undefeated in the playoffs. 

    With a 1.85 goals-against average in the playoffs (fourth best among all goaltenders) and a .941 save percentage (second behind L.A.'s Jonathan Quick), Vokoun and his steady if unspectacular style has been reminiscent of goaltender Tom Barrasso during the Pens back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in the 1991 and 1992. 

    Vokoun has had success against the Bruins during the regular season posting a 2-0 record and a 1.50 goals-against average and a .958 save percentage.  If the Pens are to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, that success will need to continue.

    Before the playoffs began, many observers predicted that goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury would be the key to the Penguins' playoff success.  It turns out that they were right about the position but wrong about the goaltender.