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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Beasts of the East

Pens vs. Bruins a classic matchup: speed, skill vs. toughness, grit

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The unworthy are dispatched by the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring, leaving four legitimate potential champions.

In the Eastern Conference, both remaining teams, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins, are recent Cup winners with plenty of know-how when it comes to games at this level.

The East's quality matchup features the conference's best two home teams, the very first factor you should be watching when the action starts Saturday night in Pittsburgh.

Can home teams hold serve? Who will break first in this area?

The Penguins bring some head-to-head momentum to the series, but considering that Boston and Pittsburgh are not considered to-the-death rivals -- like the Penguins and Flyers, or the Bruins and Habs -- that may be somewhat overblown at this stage of the playoffs.

Certainly, they won't be liking each other but this matchup is probably more about hockey than hatred, unless Bruins broadcaster Jack Edwards puts on some skates.

Pittsburgh won all three games during the regular season, all tight games. The Penguins have also won six straight games in Boston, which will be something to watch for Game 3.

Matchups in certain categories are going to be critical. To wit:

-- Who gets the upper hand, Pittsburgh goalie Tomas Vokoun or Boston starter Tuukka Rask?

-- Can the Bruins stay out of the box, and more importantly, can they contain the Penguins' power play when they can't?

-- Will Pittsburgh's forwards be caught taking shortcuts? The Bruins won't take many and if the Pens can tone down the "cheating," they are likely the better team.

The schedule for the series is a good, old-fashioned every second day, until Game 7, which will be one day after a Game 6.

Pittsburgh Penguins (1)

vs. Boston Bruins (4)

HEAD-TO-HEAD:

Penguins prevailed 3-0; all games decided by one goal, in regulation, and all played in the second half of the shortened season.

Why the Penguins will win:

After putting the hammer down on both the Islanders and Senators when it matters, the Penguins come into the East final rested and on their game.

Ottawa was certainly a pesky, persistent team all season but in the end, its pop-guns and peskiness were no match for a high-skilled, committed team. The close of the Sens-Pens series was telling, with Pittsburgh running away, appearing to have plenty of gas left in the tank.

On paper, that series figured to be closer, but Pittsburgh's superior and conference-best offence dismantling the conference's best defence.

Goals have come from all the team's top forwards; seven from Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis, six from James Neal and four from Evgeni Malkin. Boston will be picking poison if they choose one player or one line to try to shut down.

And that power play, it has inflicted damaged so far in these playoffs, with 13 goals in 11 games. That's game-changing production, which, if it continues, puts Pittsburgh in great shape to be in the Cup final.

In many corners, the Pens defence remains underrated, but it didn't have massive amounts of trouble with the Senators.

And Vokoun has been more than reliable, putting up winning numbers so far since taking over for Marc-Andre Fleury, a .941 save percentage and a 1.85 goals-against average. Boston's "traffic" at the net figures to be more intense than either the Islanders' or Senators', but Vokoun's a veteran who's been around the block more than once and he should now how to deal with it.

And while it may seem preposterous to suggest, should Vokoun somehow falter, coach Dan Bylsma does have Fleury as an option. Fleury's inconsistency would make him risky, but he's found his groove before.

Why the Bruins will win:

Boston has been an interesting study since about mid-April.

Forced to play six games in nine days at the end of the regular season, in part because of rescheduling caused by the marathon bombing, the Bruins just seemed out of sorts. They bumbled away some games and seemed frozen or lost at time during their first-round battle against Toronto.

But recapturing their mojo just in time, what this Boston team can do was on display late in Game 7 vs. the Leafs and almost the entire time against the New York Rangers, who were punted in five games.

The Rangers are a hard team to play against; effort and hard work are just the baseline to beating them.

Much more is required and the Bruins seemed to have it, and the control of the second-round series from the start.

That should indicate that Boston might be approaching its Cup-winning form from 2011, making this showdown with Pittsburgh's power just delicious.

Boston's top line is hitting on its cylinders now, with David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Hummer-sized Milan Lucic in fine production mode. Krejci (hard-core poolies can tell you this in their sleep) is the NHL scoring leader in the playoffs with 17 points.

Attention to penalty killing, and discipline -- probably both -- is going to be key for the Bruins. It's hard to know how aggressive to be in this spring's rulebook-optional playoffs, but passive is not an option against Pittsburgh. Boston's own power play has produced, with seven goals and above 20 per cent (21.9 to Pittsburgh's 28.3), and the Bruins will need something there to win the series, but it's more likely to be about the penalty killing against Pittsburgh's weapons that will tell the tale.

And of course, anything Rask can do that's beyond average will not only be welcome, but it's likely to be pivotal.

 

Gary Lawless picks: Penguins in six.

Ed Tait picks: Bruins in seven.

Tim Campbell picks: Penguins in seven.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 30, 2013 D5

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