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The NHL Playoff Primer: Eastern Conference Finals

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Sidney Crosby's mustache is undoubtedly wispier than yours (AP).

Sidney Crosby’s mustache is undoubtedly wispier than yours (AP).

If your son or daughter was born the day of the last time the Penguins and Bruins met in the playoffs, he or she just enjoyed a legal beer for the first time last week.

It seems like it’s been 21 years since the Penguins and Bruins played a hockey game at all, and perhaps that’s fitting considering it seems like it shouldn’t have been more than two decades since these two last faced off in a best-of-7 spring showdown. These teams have played 55 playoff series since Pittsburgh swept Boston out of the 1992 playoffs en route to its second Stanley Cup. Only nine times in 40 combined seasons since have the Pens or Bruins missed the playoffs, yet they never ran into each other.

While this seems like it could be that family reunion where you vaguely know everyone yet  recognize no one – I think that’s Great Aunt Gladys over there! Is that Cousin Billy? The last time I saw him he wasn’t even up to my knees! – there is no shortage of storylines, familiarity, and on at least one side, a little bit of hatred.

In no particular order:

That hair needs no introduction.

That hair needs no introduction.

Excuse me sir, please tuck in your mullet: Aside from Mario Lemieux, who was the best player on the ice when the Penguins and Bruins last met in the playoffs? The ageless Jaromir Jagr, who scored 439 goals in 11 years in Pittsburgh and has spent the last decade roaming around the Eastern Conference looking for a return to glories past. He’s flirted with a return to Pittsburgh in each of the last two offseasons, but he doesn’t have the greatest relationship with his former linemate-turned-owner. How effective is Jagr at 41? He hasn’t scored a goal in his last 21 postseason games, and this is his first trip to the conference finals since leaving nearly 12 years ago. But he’s still a physical presence who is capable of possessing the puck and getting to the net, even if he’s not leaving a trail of dandruff in his wake from a hairdo that made it look like he was carrying a passed-out Bichon Frise under his helmet.

Send it in, Jarome!: Perhaps the hottest property available at the NHL’s April trade deadline was Calgary Flames lifer Jarome Iginla, the type of first-class guy everyone looks at and says “boy, he deserves to leave Going Nowhere Team X and contend for a Cup with Going Places Team Y!” And that team was Boston, where he could team with David Krejci and Milan Lucic and inject some life into an inconsistent Bruins offense. More importantly, the acquisition was a coup for GM Peter Chiarelli, who needed to respond to Pittsburgh’s trades for Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray.

Until it wasn’t.

That was the report on plenty of credible outlets for a few hours late on March 27, and the Bruins had even informed prospects Alex Khokhlachev and Matt Bartkowski they were about to be playing in a city best known for a massive rodeo. But just a little while later we learned Iginla had in fact been dealt to Pittsburgh after expressing a preference for the Penguins over the Bruins to Flames management.

Desperate to add a bit of scoring punch, the Bruins got Jagr five days later. And obviously by virtue of the deal for Iginla falling through, they kept Bartkowski – a Pittsburgh native who scored his first NHL goal in Boston’s wild Game 7 win against Toronto.

Jack Edwards and Matt Cooke are currently seeing other people (USA Today).

Jack Edwards and Matt Cooke are currently seeing other people (USA Today).

Cooke-ing up trouble: Ahh, Matt Cooke. You hate him if he’s on the other team and you … well, you pretty much hated him if he was on your team until the past two seasons. Cooke was a checking-line pest with some scoring punch but he was also a nasty cheap-shot artist. His most infamous was this shot on Boston’s Marc Savard in March 2010, which was not illegal at the time yet prompted a nearly immediate rule change outlawing such a check. Regardless, it was a nasty shot from a repeat offender and it essentially ended Savard’s career. Cooke has become somewhat of a changed man over the past few years, managing to stay near the edge that made him a valuable player but not skate well over the line like he had in the past.

You’re not going to believe this, but that hasn’t made him any more well-liked in Boston. What you also might not believe is that Bruins play-by-play man Jack Edwards, who’s a tad bit prone to eye-rolling hyperbole, compared Cooke to Robert Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan when discussing the Pittsburgh media’s decision to nominate Cooke for the Masterton Trophy last season.

Turns out the man on skates isn’t the only one who can fly well past a line that shouldn’t be crossed.

If that wasn’t enough reason for Bruins fans to have a little animosity toward the Penguins, those with even longer memories will be more than willing to point out Ulf Samuelsson’s knee-on-knee check of Boston’s Cam Neely in the 1991 East finals, a hit that Neely recovered from but was still believed ultimately to have shortened his career.

There’s a silver lining with that one, though. The Bruins coach at the time was none other than professional shit-stirrer Mike Milbury, a man whose professional failures were apparently so highly thought of that he now is one of NBC’s lead hockey analysts. Milbury ends most broadcasts with his foot firmly in his mouth, which is rather ironic considering one of his most infamous transgressions involved using a shoe to slap a fan.

I think most hockey fans can agree anything that made that village idiot upset at least had some semblance of use in the world.

Tuukka Rask may be grabbing this water bottle for relief once or twice in the upcoming days (Getty Images).

Tuukka Rask may be grabbing this water bottle for relief once or twice in the upcoming days (Getty Images).

1. Pittsburgh vs. 4. Boston

The Penguins will win if: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Pittsburgh can win this series even if the combination of outstanding two-way center Patrice Bergeron tall Bond-villain defenseman Zdeno Chara can keep Crosby and Malkin’s production somewhat minimal, but if they can’t, this could be over quickly. Crosby has been as advertised in these playoffs, turning every shift into 50 seconds of terror for the opposition with his remarkable vision and incredible balance. Malkin, on the other hand, failed to show up for large chunks of the Penguins’ teetering-on-the-edge-of-trouble first-round series with the Islanders. He played much more disciplined hockey against Ottawa despite relatively meager production, and that can’t be a good sign for Boston. If turnover-prone, careless Malkin shows up, the Bruins should have a chance to make this a long series. If Conn Smythe Malkin is locked in, it could be over quickly.

There’s more to the Penguins than Crosby and Malkin, of course. Pascal Dupuis has been one of the best players not named Crosby or Jonathan Quick in this postseason, Kris Letang has been a huge difference-maker offensively (proving the NHL’s award for the best defensemen has little to do with defense) and James Neal and Iginla got going late in the Ottawa series.

Pittsburgh still has some issues defensively and guys like Malkin and Letang have the tendency to cough up the puck attempting to make a perfect cross-ice pass that can lead to a break the other way. Tomas Vokoun has been good if not someone most people think can steal a playoff series, but he certainly shouldn’t have to with this bunch in front of him.

The Penguins are averaging 4.27 goals in the playoffs, the most by a team that’s made it through two rounds since 1987-88. The Bruins have been the NHL’s second-most productive offense in the postseason and they’re averaging 1.10 goals fewer. You can say Pittsburgh hasn’t seen a team in the playoffs with the capability to truly slow it down yet, but Ottawa was just as good of a defensive club as Boston during the season. They may not be the Miami Heat of the NHL as a certain Bruin wants to get people to believe, but they’re pretty darn close.

Bergeron getting Crosby to do what the fans of 29 other teams think he does best. It rhymes with "driving." (AP)

Bergeron getting Crosby to do what the fans of 29 other teams think he does best. It rhymes with “driving.” (AP)

The Bruins will win if: They’re the better team at even strength and Tuukka Rask turns into a playoff stopper. The first is an awfully difficult proposition, but it won’t be completely unmanageable. Pittsburgh has scored on 28.3 percent of its power plays and killed all but four of its 39 penalties, so Boston will have its hands full on special teams.

But the Bruins were the third-best team in hockey at even strength during the regular season – not surprisingly, Chicago and Pittsburgh were 1-2 – and need to be even better in this series. Boston needs Rask to be excellent, but it can’t rely on winning more than a game or two in a tight-checking, 2-1 or 3-2 style that’s become the norm in these playoffs. The Bruins need to do what the Islanders did, which is get up and down the ice and, as best they can, run with the Penguins.

The good news for the Bruins is that they’re not overly reliant on one guy or one line to produce offensively. Krejci leads all playoffs scorers with 17 points, but he was quiet for much of the New York series. Brad Marchand, who was all but invisible against the Maple Leafs, had six points against the Rangers. Bergeron, Nathan Horton,  Lucic, Johnny Boychuk and Jagr are all capable of producing, but the Bruins could conceivably go to another level – and perhaps wins this series – if Tyler Seguin can start producing. The former No. 2 overall pick has just one goal on 45 shots and four points in the playoffs, though he scored in all three regular-season meetings against Pittsburgh. Boston, however, lost all three.

“No doubt they’re a great hockey club,” Lucic said of the Penguins. “In my mind, they’re almost like the Miami Heat of the NHL with all the star power.”

Seguin isn’t the only young gun the Bruins may be relying on. Defensemen Wade Redden and Andrew Ference are still hurt, but youngsters Bartkowski and Torey Krug – he of the four goals in five games, three of which have come on the power play – have stepped in nicely. That gives Claude Julien some options to chase around Pittsburgh’s bumper crop of forwards.

One thing the Bruins have going for them is their propensity to get shots through, which certainly can only help against a team with a somewhat unproven goaltender that wants to turn things into a track meet. Boston was second in the league in shots during the regular season and is averaging a ridiculous 38.3 per game on net in the playoffs. Sounds simple, but the more rubber Vokoun sees, the more likely he is to let a soft one in (that’s what she said?!?).

Fun fact: The Penguins are 18-4 since March 1 when they score a power-play goal and 20-3 when they keep their opponent off the board with the man-advantage.

The pick: Penguins in 6

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