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Pens, Bruins begin East finals in Steel City

9:39 AM, Jun 1, 2013   |    comments
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(Sports Network) - A couple of well-rested teams will swing back into action Saturday, as the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins host the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

The Penguins haven't played since May 24, when they finished off the Ottawa Senators in five games, while Boston eliminated the New York Rangers, also in five, on May 25. Since both Western Conference semifinal series went the distance, the Bruins and Pens had some down time on their hands before this best-of-seven matchup could start.

"I think we're just excited to get started," said Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby. "We've practiced a lot and I think we've had some good practices. We're well prepared, so we're just excited to start the games."

After facing a tougher than expected challenge in a six-game series win over the eighth-seeded New York Islanders in Round 1, the Penguins were able to make quick work of Ottawa in the East semifinals. As a result, the East's top seed finds itself in the third round of the playoffs for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.

While Pittsburgh still has the likes of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang leading the way, there is one big difference between this Penguins team and the club that beat Detroit four years ago for the Stanley Cup. That's because head coach Dan Bylsma was forced to make a switch in net during Islanders' series, replacing Marc-Andre Fleury in net with Tomas Vokoun.

Presently, there is no goaltender controversy because the veteran Vokoun has been spectacular since taking over the reins earlier in this postseason. The 36-year-old is 6-1 with a 1.85 goals against average and .941 save percentage since replacing Fleury, who was 2-2 with a 3.40 GAA and .891 save percentage in his four postseason outings this spring.

With Vokoun taking control of the situation between the pipes, the Pens are able to concentrate on scoring goals in bunches, something they've done better than any other NHL team this season.

Pittsburgh led the NHL with an average of 3.38 goals per game during the regular season and has only watched that number go higher during the playoffs. The Penguins enter this series with an average of 4.27 gpg in the postseason, placing them more than a goal ahead of the next-best team -- the Bruins (3.17 GPG).

Pittsburgh's dominance on offense begins with the presence of Crosby and Malkin -- two of the world's most dangerous offensive weapons. But it doesn't end there because the Pens' top two centermen have had plenty of help putting the puck in the net. All told, 15 different players have scored goals for Pittsburgh in these playoffs, with 11 of them scoring two or more and six players registering more than three markers.

Crosby and Pascal Dupuis are pacing the club with seven playoff goals apiece, while winger James Neal has six tallies.

Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero also made some high-profile trade acquisitions around the deadline this year and those players have done their share during this postseason run. Most notably, Jarome Iginla, who Shero pried away from Calgary, has four goals and eight assists to put him fourth on the team in points.

Meanwhile, after bowing out in the opening round last spring, Boston is back in the conference finals for the first time since winning it all two years ago. One big change from Boston's recent championship run is the absence of two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas, but Tuukka Rask is more than holding his own between the pipes.

Shortly after the Bruins lost in the first round to Washington in last year's playoffs, Thomas announced he was going to sit out the 2012-13 campaign due to personal reasons. However, the 26-year-old Rask did a solid job as the No. 1 goaltender during the regular season and is 8-4 with a 2.22 goals against average and .928 save percentage in 12 postseason games.

The fourth-seeded Bruins, who needed seven games to outlast Toronto in the opening round, averaged just 2.65 goals during the regular season, but are up to 3.17 gpg in the postseason.

The Bruins' top line has done most of the damage on offense, with centerman David Krejci leading the way in the playoffs with five goals and a team-high 17 points. Right winger Nathan Horton is tied with Krejci for the team lead with five goals and also has seven assists.

Boston's second unit is led by valuable two-way centerman Patrice Bergeron, but most Pittsburgh fans will have their eyes set on the line's right winger, Jaromir Jagr.

Although he hasn't played for the Penguins since 2001, the 41-year-old Jagr is still a familiar figure in the Steel City. Jagr helped Pittsburgh win consecutive Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and '92 and is second to Mario Lemieux on the club's all-time list in goals, assists, points and numerous other offensive statistical categories.

Jagr was acquired by Boston at the deadline, but only after the club lost out to Pittsburgh in the Iginla sweepstakes. He had two goals and seven assists in 11 regular-season games with the Bruins, but has only registered four helpers in 12 postseason contests.

The Czech legend does lead all active NHLers with 193 career playoff points (78G, 115A) over 192 games.

"He doesn't need to be the Jagr of 20 years ago or 15 years ago," Bruins head coach Claude Julien said. "He needs to be the Jags that we have right now."

Boston also is able to generate offense from the back end, where Zdeno Chara still looms large on the blue line. The big Slovakian had two goals and nine assists in these playoffs and is leading the club with over 29 minutes of ice time per game.

While Chara's offensive production was expected, few people saw Torey Krug's rise to prominence coming. Krug had played in three career NHL games -- none in the playoffs -- heading into this postseason and had never scored a goal.

However, due to mounting injures on defense the undrafted 22-year-old has been pressed into service this spring and has recorded four goals and one assist in five games. He became the first rookie defenseman in the history of the NHL to score four times in his first five playoff games.

Although the injured defensemen are now on the mend, Krug has earned a spot in the lineup at the start of this series.

Chara's usual skating partner, Dennis Seidenberg, sat out the first four games of the New York series with an injury before returning for Game 5.

Fellow defensemen Wade Redden and Andrew Ference, who both haven't played since the Toronto series, have been practicing with the team and could be ready for Game 1 of the conference finals.

The last time the Penguins and Bruins faced off in the postseason was in 1992, when Jagr was just 21 years old and only beginning his standout NHL career.

Pittsburgh swept the Bruins in four games during the 1992 Wales Conference finals before going on to sweep Chicago for the franchise's second straight Cup. The Pens and Bruins have split four all-time series in the postseason, but Boston last ousted Pittsburgh from the playoffs in 1980.

The Penguins also have won six straight regular-season games against Boston, including all three encounters in 2013. However, all three tilts between the teams during this campaign were decided by only one goal.

Game 2 of this series is scheduled for Monday in Pittsburgh, where the Pens are 5-1 in the playoffs after going 18-6-0 at the CONSOL Energy Center during the regular season.

Boston is 3-2 on the road in the playoffs and was 12-9-3 away from Beantown in the 2013 regular season.

The Sports Network

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