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Are Penguins too good for Bruins?

Posted by Adam Kaufman  May 29, 2013 12:53 AM

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It’s hard not to think back to 2011 these days if you’re a Bruins fan.

Not even two years ago, the Bruins were hoisting the Stanley Cup in the land of the Canucks, and yet in many ways it feels like it’s been a decade. But, here we are, the B’s survivors of the Leafs, just as they were the Canadiens, and fresh off a thumping of the Rangers, not unlike the retaliatory spanking they gave the Flyers.

Entering the 2013 conference finals, however, the Penguins in waiting are nothing like the Lightning the Bruins edged along their path to sports immortality. In fact, they’re far more similar to that team that resides in western Canada.

Skilled throughout, deep up front, big, the ability to score at will, and a power play that comes with a back-up generator, are just some of the comparisons.

Make no mistake, for the Bruins to win four of their next seven games, they’ll have to be at their absolute best, and virtually any and all decisions they make must be the right ones.

Should the offensively-challenged Jaromir Jagr remain on the second line as Tyler Seguin continues to try and find himself on the third unit? To start, I say yes…but Claude Julien had better know.

Should Zdeno Chara be paired defensively with the newly healthy Dennis Seidenberg despite Pittsburgh’s staggered superstar offense, when the case could be made for putting one against Sidney Crosby and friends while the other faces off with Evgeni Malkin’s crew? Again, I say yes … but Julien’s strategy could be costly if wrong.

Should rookie surprises Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski remain in the lineup over experienced veterans Andrew Ference or Wade Redden, if the latter two are healthy? This would seem a resounding ‘Yes!’ across Boston…but imagine the tongue-lashing Claude could be in for from us know-it-alls in the media if rookie mistakes end up losing the Bruins a game whilst elder defensemen watch from the press box.

It’s very, very easy to play the What If game, and if Julien had all the answers there’d be no need to hold the series. The unknowns are a part of why we love sports.

One thing we don't love but can't really dispute is the belief that the Penguins are better than the Bruins. They’ve got an offense that produces 4.3 goals per game, converts 28.3 percent of the time on the power play (13 man-advantage goals in 11 playoff games is just silly), and thrives when shorthanded at 89.7 percent on the penalty kill. The Bruins’ power play has come on of late with four goals – three by Krug – in 12 opportunities against the Rangers, but you still largely don’t know what to expect when those two minutes start ticking down, and the same can be said of the kill in the postseason – 81.1 percent – after that was a strength during the regular season. Did I mention they beat the Bruins in all three meetings this season without Malkin?

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If you’re looking for an edge on the Boston side, put a check mark between the pipes. Tuukka Rask, butt stumble aside, has been fantastic with a 2.22 goals-against average and .928 save percentage. Against New York, he was even better, registering a 1.86 GAA and .936 stoppage rate. He’s younger, more athletic and is less susceptible to errant rebounds than his counterpart, 36-year-old Tomas Vokoun. While the goalie’s been a game-changer for Pittsburgh since taking over for Marc-Andre Fleury late in the first round – posting a 6-1 record with one shutout, a 1.85 GAA and .941 save percentage – most pundits would agree Rask holds the advantage. Purely defensively speaking, the blueliners in front of him may as well. Still, I’d be remiss, even if it goes against my point, if I didn’t mention that Rask is 1-4-0 with a 2.63 GAA in his career against the Penguins while Vokoun’s won four of his last five decisions at the hands of the Bruins.

When this series finally starts on Saturday (yeah, it’s really going to happen!), we can stop talking about the lengthy time off and which squad benefited more by the rest. You could argue the Bruins based on age and infirmary reports, plus they flourished in the first half of their abbreviated season when games were few and far between but, in reality, the teams are on equal footing at this point. Both will have had longer than a week to get ready, whether physically, mentally, emotionally or any other “ally”. No excuses.

We can even attempt – hard as it will be – to follow the clubs’ lead and ignore the ugly past histories between the organizations.

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Cam Neely and Ulf Samuelsson. Marc Savard and Matt Cooke. Peter Chiarelli and Ray Shero. Jaromir Jagr and Jarome Iginla. Jagr and the place that made him a Hall of Famer. Matt Bartkowski and the team he grew up rooting for. The Penguins’ consecutive playoff eliminations of the Bruins at this point back in 1991 and 1992, helped by a too-young-to-legally-drink-in-the-United-States Jagr. If we’re really reaching, the Pens’ top affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton rallying from an 0-3 hole to beat the Providence Bruins in four straight in the second round of the AHL playoffs only days ago.

We could spend hours dissecting each and every one of those areas but, once the puck finally drops, history doesn’t matter; only the present.

For the Hub’s Black and Gold to pull off the upset, they must build on what they did against the Blue Shirts. Win with speed, physicality, shutdown defense, superior goaltending, production across the board, and even a hint of shock, as they received from their youthful defensemen and an offensively-charged fourth line.

Moreover, old man Jagr will have to take shorter shifts and get on the scoreboard, which has been a problem for over a month. Seguin will have to keep elevating his play, as he did in the final two games of the second round. Chris Kelly’s line will, at the very least, have to play even hockey, rather than the collective minus-12 it’s sitting at to this point in the postseason. David Krejci’s line will have to continue drinking the magic potion it found a dozen games ago. And, Patrice Bergeron…well, his defense against Sid the Kid will be just as important as the offense he creates alongside Brad Marchand.

These teams have been here before. Both have won Cups during the Obama administration. There’s substantial experience on either side. This is the matchup everyone wanted, including the Bruins. Their message after practice on Tuesday ranged from “bring it on” to “we wish the series started tonight.” As the cliché goes, to be the best, you have to beat the best, and the B’s know it. Most expect the Penguins to skate off to another finals appearance in five or six games. I think this thing’s got legs for seven, but it’s still hard to pick against the Steel City.

Then again, there was that 2011 postseason ...

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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