Eastern Conference Finals Roundtable
Thanks to the writers that agree to participate with us for taking time out of their busy playoff schedules to join us for a thorough discussion about this series.
As always, we ask five questions and compare the answers of everyone. I would encourage all our readers to bookmark these sites if you haven’t already and follow each and every one of these writers on Twitter.
Ian Altenbaugh of Hockey’s Future
Jimmy Rixner of Pensburgh
Tecmo of PSAMP
Tony Ferrante of The Confluence
Sam Kasan of the Pens Inside Scoop
Eric Majeski of Lets Go Pens
Zoe Hayden of Puck Huffers
tPB Adam of The Pensblog
Joe Depto of The PensNation
Brian Metzer of From The Point
Mike Colligan of The Hockey Writers
1. You’re Bruins head coach Claude Julien. Who do you play Zdeno Chara against in this series?
Altenbaugh: I put Chara on Malkin. I’m fairly sure Chara will be on Crosby, but historically that has not been a great matchup for Chara. The big D-man is a strong skater, but he’s not very fast backwards, and the Pens seem to know how to wear him down physically. Malkin’s style of game, where he utilizes his strength and reach down low, is a much better matchup for Chara. Julien will likely either match the Bergeron line or the 4th line against Malkin, in hopes their physical/2-way play can shut him down.
Rixner: If I were Julien, I would try to maximize the matchups. I’d want Patrice Bergeron (maybe the top defensive center in the game) to shadow Crosby and use Dennis Seidenberg/Matt Bartkowski to match the Crosby line. I’d play Zdeno Chara with Johnny Boychuk and focus them on the Neal-Malkin-Iginla line, because of the speed and forechecking ability that Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz demonstrated in the regular season matchups against Boston. It’s a gamble to take Chara away from 87, but the Malkin line is just as dangerous at even strength and deserves attention too. I also think that Malkin can be limited by bigger defensemen and if Chara can do that, it’ll put a lot of pressure on Crosby to break free from Bergeron and create offense
Tecmo: Everyone. Just park him in the defensive zone all game. Seriously, it’s a tough decision. I gotta think he’s out there again the Malkin line to start things, due to the recent goal explosion from a Mr. Jimmy Neal. But after the first few Pens goals you’ll start to see him out there against just about everyone.
Ferrante: I would try to match him up against Crosby as much as possible. The rationale that I’m using is that an unleashed Crosby is more dangerous than an unleashed Malkin, albeit not by much. It’s certainly a pick your poison strategy though, that’s for sure.
Kasan: If I were the Bruins I wouldn’t marry Chara to any particular player or line. When he’s rested and ready for his next shift – whether that is against Sidney Crosby’s line or Evgeni Malkin’s line – it’d get him on the ice. I think Boston would be best served getting Chara as much ice time as possible, as long as when he’s on the ice with Crosby or Malkin are opposite him. As far as playing the Pens’ top lines, I would have that duty fall to their best two-way centers, Bergeron and Krejci. I’d put Bergeron head-to-head with Crosby and Krejci against Malkin. And when either Pens’ star is on the ice and Chara is ready, I’d send him out.
Majeski: Can I clone him? Genetically enhance his stamina so I can double-shift him? No? I guess I’d put him on Malkin then and hope Bergeron’s line can help my second pair limit Crosby’s line. At least this will help keep Chara from getting pounded by Dupuis AND Kunitz, though Neal can still drive him nuts.
Hayden: Probably Malkin. Chara is better at taking away space from Malkin, whereas I think Crosby can beat him with speed. He’ll want faster and more agile defensemen against Crosby.
tPB Adam: Definitely have Chara go up against Malkin. Chara’s size and wingspan will take time and space away from Geno, who tends to want to dangle through people, as opposed to Crosby’s work along the boards.
Depto: For Claude Julien, getting proper match-ups at CEC will be a daunting task. The Iginla-Malkin-Neal line has combined for 38 points in just 11 games, but Crosby’s line isn’t far behind. Ultimately, I think Julien’s decision will largely depend on who he wants Chara’s defensive partner to be. Pairing Seidenberg with Chara gives Julien the best chance for a shutdown pairing that can isolate on a hot Pittsburgh line, but it compromises his depth as well. I expect Chara to see more of Crosby early on, but if his secondary pairing goes awry early, that could force him to juggle his blue line.
Metzer: That is a popular question, especially with a week between the last series and the start of this one. I would probably use Chara against Malkin. Yes he is playing some tremendous hockey, but he hasn’t necessarily shut Crosby down in their head-to-head match-ups. It just seems that Crosby finds a way to get on the scoresheet. There are two other variables that play into my thinking – 1. The Bruins do not want Chara to wear down after getting him rested. Chris Kunitz and his tenacious forecheck would be looking to line Chara up on every shift if he is matched against Sid. I also see the third line doing the same thing to him, so though he is a physical specimen, he is going to have his hands full. 2. Based on history, if I was going to play my stud shutdown guy against one of the Penguins centers, I am choosing the one that I think I can goad into penalties. Though he did better job of keep his head during the Senators series, Malkin is still susceptible to the dreaded dumb penalty – a guy like Chara could make that happen with physical play and shadowing.
Colligan: If I’m Julien, I match Chara against the Malkin line — but I’m not Claude Julien. I think Julien and Chara are stubborn and will insist on having him match up with the Crosby line. It’ll lead to trouble for the Bruins. Crosby has become the most dominant player in the league below the goal line and Chara won’t be able to keep up, especially with Kunitz and Dupuis delivering body blows on the forecheck.
2. Can the Penguins power-play solve the Bruins penalty kill?
Altenbaugh: The Bruins had a good regular season PK, but it’s not been as good in the post-season. Half the D has been injured for several games, but generally I think it’s a tad overrated. Between a third and a half of their games were against middling to poor powerplays in Toronto, Ottawa, and Buffalo. More importantly though, the Bruins played against Toronto and the Rangers in the prior two rounds. That said, the Bruins have some tape of the Sens who, at least for short stretches, were able to minimize the damage the Pens PP did. That obviously didn’t last long however.
Rixner: Ottawa had the #1 PK in the regular season, and their aggressive nature (plus Craig Anderson) makes a much tougher matchup than Boston, as we saw from the SH chances and goals the Pens gave up. Boston also has a capable and strong PK, and while I don’t think the Pens will make it look easy like they did against the Islanders, I do expect the Pittsburgh power play to score a goal here and there against Boston and be able to fuel them to some wins.
Tecmo: Oh yes. Simply for the number of combinations of quality PP units Dan Bylsma can send over the boards. When TK is a viable threat at the end of a PP, you know it’s only a matter of time before the opposing PK cracks. The Pens just have way too many offensive specialists for Boston to focus on every possible combination.
Ferrante: The Penguins, in fact most teams, have problems when the PK is overly aggressive. But that can end up biting the PK in the butt-ocks because it eventually puts the PK out of position, where they’re already short-handed. I think as long as the Pens keep the PP simple, not making the extra pretty pass and simply get the pucks on net they’re gonna be hard to beat.
Kasan: It’s hard to imagine the Penguins’ power play not scoring with all the talent they possess. But especially now that James Neal has found his scoring touch. Neal admitted to being “snake bitten” in the previous two series until breaking through in Game 4 at Ottawa with two goals. He followed that up with his first career playoff hat trick in Game 5. Don’t forget that Neal led the entire NHL last season with 18 power-play goals. The Penguins’ power play should be successful no matter what and will get their goals, but if Neal is clicking then they’ll be downright dirty.
Majeski: As long as the guys out there play smart, absolutely. They can ice two units capable of going Globetrotters and no matter how aggressive the Bruins’ kill is, they can’t outskate quick, accurate passing. Another key is not over-extending. The depth they have means there’s no reason to extend a power play shift. Go hard, outwork the opposition, and if you can’t score, change it up and get fresh troops out there.
Hayden: Maybe not easily—but I don’t think the Pens will be shut out by it. I think the power play will continue to provide key goals, as it did against the Senators and Islanders, even after periods where it was obvious that the PP was frustrated. Can’t kill ‘em all. Too much skill.
tPB Adam: Yes, the Penguins can solve the Bruins penalty kill. I just wish people wouldn’t flip out when the Pens haven’t scored for 3 or 4 consecutive power plays. 1 out of 4 is 25%, which ain’t too bad.
Depto: It won’t be easy, but I absolutely think they can – and I mean that as more of a compliment to Pittsburgh’s unit than a slight on Boston’s excellent PK unit. The Pens have drawn more penalties in the postseason (46) than any other team in the eastern conference thus far. It’s been no secret that teams have used overly physical play to try to knock Pittsburgh out of their comfort zone. Guys like Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic thrive in this department. If that line is crossed too frequently, the Pens PP is going to be given plenty of opportunities to settle into a groove. If there’s one thing that could take get this series out of hand in Pittsburgh’s favor, it’s making Boston hesitate about playing a nasty edge. It sounds strange considering the Bruins’ personnel, but the Pens powerplay is just that good.
Metzer: Yes, I think that they can. One goal came to mind as evidence when I started to think about this situation and the same one that you (Jesse) masterfully broke down in a blog a couple of days back. This wasn’t the same unit that had been shut out in two previous games, it was one that looks an awful lot like the one that the Bruins will be seeing when the puck drops this evening. The give-and-go play you mentioned to open space is something that Iginla has shown on several occasions when given an opportunity to do so. He was on the receiving end of a give-and-go between Jussi Jokinen and Kris Letang in Game 4 against the Senators, where Jokinen won the draw to Letang, who dished back to Jokinen along the right wing boards. The D converged on them leaving Iginla in the high slot to receive and one time a pass from Jokinen. Plays like that and the one you discussed are why I would like to see a bit more Iginla on the PP, but there is no reason that the guys on the number one unit right now cannot cause the same kind of misdirection to open lanes for passes and shots. They have just got to be careful with those dreaded point-to-point passes, since they have already shown that they are pretty vulnerable in terms of shorthanded opportunities. Overall, this is one of the battles that I am most looking forward to watching.
Colligan: Absolutely. When comparing PK units, the Penguins penalty kill relies more on read-and-react. The Bruins PK rotations are structured. When a pass goes to one side, all parts move immediately to apply pressure and take away passing options. Normally this would concern me, but the Pens powerplay has become an highly-skilled improv group. You can’t gameplan to stop a powerplay that has no gameplan.
3. The Penguins have terrorized two pretty good goaltenders in Evgeni Nabokov and Craig Anderson so far. Is Tuukka Rask next in line, or does he have the intangibles to stop this offense?
Altenbaugh: Yes. Rask is a starting goaltender in the NHL who is young and already has a large amount of experience. The Bruins however insulate him, as they did Tim Thomas. They do a particularly good job collapsing around the net. If the Pens are able to do damage off the rush, it could open up the floodgates.
Rixner: Rask isn’t the best goalie the Pens have seen, but he’ll benefit by having the best defensive shell in front of him. Chara is a monster and the Bruins are a well-coached team to collapse, block shots and play a desperate, tight checking game for the most part. They have that playoff “drag it out” mentality down pat and seem to play in a lot of Game 7’s. Rask will be better than Nabokov but he’s no Craig Anderson. The more important matchup is breaking through Chara and the defensive acumen the Bruins have to generate chances. With the skill the Pens have, if they work to get those chances, they’ll start going in no matter who the goalie is.
Tecmo: Tuukka Rask will probably get lit up for as many goals a game as he has U’s and K’s in his first name. And that’s only partly based on Rask himself…the Pens and their 4.27 goals per game average has just gotta be a scary thing for any opposing goaltender. As well as an easy excuse when he inevitably gives up 4+ a night. The Pens are making minced meat out of anyone daring to step between the pipes. Tuukka is just next.
Ferrante: Well, if you read Bruins press, you’d think that there’s no doubt he is. Is he capable of stealing a game or two? Possible, yeah, but I don’t see it as probable. I don’t see him as that much better as Anderson, and the Pens exposed the hell out of him.
Kasan: You can expect Tuukka Rask to suffer the same fate as Evgeni Nabokov and Craig Anderson before him. No offense to Rask, who is a fine NHL goaltender. This is about the Penguins’ unfathomably deep offensive arsenal. That doesn’t mean he can’t stymie Pittsburgh and steal a game, but the Penguins are just too good to be contained. The Penguins are averaging a ridiculous 4.27 goals per game. No goaltender has a chance.
Majeski: Rask has the talent to do it and certainly has a great team in front of him, but I don’t think he can steal the series. Anderson had better regular season numbers, but the Pens got to him most of the Ottawa series. I think the odds of the Pens getting into his head are greater than the reverse happening. More likely he’s just another victim, kid.
Hayden: Rask has not been fantastic. He’s been solid, for sure, and hardworking, but I maintain that the poor guy hasn’t looked unbeatable at all at any point in this postseason. I’m sure that now that I’ve said this he’ll put on an absolutely brilliant performance. He’s a good goalie. But the Pens can definitely solve him.
tPB Adam: Rask is definitely the next in line, although the Isles and Sens didn’t have the skill in front of their goalies like the Bruins do.
Depto: I think Rask has a chance to post better stats than Anderson and Nabokov because he’s playing in front of a superior blue line, but I don’t think goaltending will be a substantial advantage for Boston. If the Pens can get clean looks at Rask and/or great puck attack from the blue line, they’ll put pucks past him. The Bruins have to cover the points well to minimize Martin and Letang or else Rask will in over his head trying to minimize rebounds.
Metzer: Rask has been great in these playoffs, aside from a couple stinkers against the Rangers that is. However, the bottom line is that he and the Bruins barely squeaked by the Maple Leafs and the allowed a couple of goals that were questionable to an anemic Rangers offense. This is his time to show that he is the real deal and is fully capable of shutting the Penguins down, though I don’t think it will happen. They have manufactured goals against Rask before. Even on nights when he has been playing “lights out,” he was beaten on plays like the one in which Joe Vitale scored earlier in the season. If you crash the net, you get rewarded. He has also allowed more goals off of the rush that I think Claude Julien would like to see. It is worth noting that he has a long history of getting a bit to emotional on the ice. His stick bashing made him a youtube sensation. That kind of emotional outburst shows me that he can be gotten too. It is also a reason why I feel that the “calm, cool, and collected” demeanor of Tomas Vokoun gives the Penguins a slight advantage in the goaltending category. It just doesn’t matter what happens to Vokoun at this point. Bad goal? Meh… we’ll get the next one. Loss? Meh, we’ll win the next one… just such a calming presence. That makes a big difference.
Colligan: Rask is an interesting goalie. He’s not really great at anything in particular. He doesn’t have a quirky personality to gain headlines. He’s just a really good, solid goaltender. I think Rask is definitely capable of stealing a couple games. The problem is he’ll have to be nearly flawless for the Bruins to have a chance to win
4. Name one thing that has to happen for the Penguins to win this series.
Altenbaugh: Show up.
Rixner: The key for the Penguins will be forechecking pressure. Both teams are similarly built: wanting to win faceoffs (which Boston will probably do more of), play puck possession and use superior skill/depth to beat opponents. Pittsburgh will need excellent performances from their best forecheckers (Kunitz, Dupuis, Neal, Cooke, Kennedy, Morrow, Adams) to apply pressure and put hits on what’s been a banged up Boston blueline, or an inexperienced Boston blueline if the injured guys can’t play. Either way, if the Pens can use energy and tempo to disrupt Boston in their own end, and create turnovers or at least rushed breakouts, I really like Pittsburgh’s chances on the series.
Tecmo: Stay focused. The Pens stayed out of most of the annoying crap against Ottawa that guys like Chris Neil and that Conacher were pulling. If the Pens get up, expect Boston to try and send messages. It’s on the Pens to brush it off and just focus on the back of the net. Again and again.
Ferrante: The Penguins cannot solely be on the receiving end of the physicality that this series is sure to offer. The Pens are more than capable now with their trade deadline pickups to play the body just as much. Really looking for guys like Kunitz, Cooke and Morrow to step it up.
Kasan: Patience. The Bruins played a very structured and disciplined style that could frustrate the Penguins. They’re going to clog up the neutral zone, take away Pittsburgh’s stretch passes and negate their speed up ice. The Penguins won all three games in the regular season by remaining patient, sticking to their game plan and then finally having their efforts pay off in the end. If the Penguins remain composed, don’t force plays that aren’t there and avoid unnecessary penalties, they should skate away with the series.
Majeski: I’d say to simply play their game, but that’s just another way of repeating what I’ve said about this team for a while: the team most capable of keeping them from the Finals is themselves. They seem to have figured that out. Specifically, I’d say getting on the forecheck. They’ve proven that part of their game is key to success against Chara and neutralizing him is a big step towards advancing.
Hayden: They’ll need to be speedy and efficient. The Bruins have beaten their opponents with a combination of physicality and strong two-way game. If the Pens maintain their speed and focus, they’ll be able to get past the Bruins.
tPB Adam: Pens win this series if Rask is pulled at least once.
Depto: Secondary scoring. Everyone expects the big names of Pittsburgh’s lineup to produce. Boston will have spent the long layoff planning and scheming nonstop to keep the big producers at bay. It keeps coming back to match-ups for me – if guys like Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy, Brenden Morrow, and Brandon Sutter can sneak in a goal from time to time, it’s not going to matter who has the last change in this series. Pittsburgh simply has too much depth to produce like a one trick pony.
Metzer: Keep on keeping on. They have beaten the Bruins in eight-of-nine games. Sure the playoffs are a completely different animal, but they have found a formula that has been pretty successful against the Bruins, continue to employ it. That formula starts with strong goaltending and transitions into a smart/effective breakout. Scoring chances off the rush, crash the net for rebounds and then get a strong forecheck going to wear down the defense. That will be especially beneficial if you are dealing with the greener defensemen on the roster in Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski.
Colligan: They have to stay patient. The Bruins are methodical in their attack and the Penguins might get anxious, especially on home ice. They need to stick to their gameplan, dump-and-chase, and pound the Bruins defensemen. Boston’s scoring issues haven’t come to the forefront yet in these playoffs, but I think they will in this series. You can’t rely on rookie defensemen to carry your scoring.
5. Official series prediction?
Altenbaugh: 4-2 Penguins.
Rixner: Sounds cocky, but I like the Pens in 5. They’re getting reliable goaltending from Vokoun and if that continues the rest will take care of itself. The Bruins are a good team, but they’re matched in every area by the Pens. There’s a reason that Iginla chose the Pens over the Bruins at the deadline, and I think that’ll be clear-cut (especially with #12 on our side helping the cause). A short series doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be an easy road- it won’t be, Boston is a very good team- I just think that Pittsburgh is a better team with better health and more depth.
Tecmo: Pens in 5. I’ve used that both rounds so far and it worked once. Just a reflection of my supreme confidence in the Pens.
Ferrante: Penguins in 6. Can the Bruins win this series? Yes, but a lot of things will have to go their way in order to do it.
Kasan: There is no defense or goaltender in the NHL that can shutdown the Penguins’ juggernaut offense. The Bruins only hope is to outscore Pittsburgh. And that’s not going to happen. Pens in 5.
Majeski: I like this matchup for the Pens to the point I want to say Pens in 5, but the Bruins might be too good to good to go away that quick. Pens in 6.
Hayden: Pens in 6 or 7. I think the Bruins might give them a few fits and tough one-goal games
tPB Adam: Pens sweep.
Depto: I’m going to go with the Pens in six. I love what Boston is capable of doing defensively, especially at the center position, but keeping scoring pace with Pittsburgh and keeping scoring pace with the Rangers and the Maple Leafs will be night and day.
Metzer: Pens in six.
Colligan: I really like this matchup if I’m the Penguins. This Bruins team isn’t as good as the one that won the Cup. Torey Krug gets exposed as a one-dimensional player and Pens in 5.
Thanks again for everyone joining us! Throw your responses in the comments section.