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NHL Eastern Conference finals preview: (1) Pittsburgh vs. (4) Boston

By Adam Gretz | Hockey writer

Sidney Crosby and Zdeno Chara will be seeing a lot of each other the next two weeks. (USATSI)
Sidney Crosby and Zdeno Chara will be seeing a lot of each other the next two weeks. (USATSI)

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So it all comes down to this in the Eastern Conference, with perhaps the two best teams in the conference during the regular season -- Pittsburgh and Boston -- playing for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

Just the way it should be.

Not only that, there are plenty of side stories here given the recent history of these teams that there shouldn't be a dull minute at any point.

There is the Matt Cooke-Marc Savard angle that the Boston media brings up at every opportunity (even this week).

There is Bruins forward Jaromir Jagr -- still the second-best player in Penguins history, by the way -- going up against his former team for the second straight year in the playoffs after a mind-numbing free-agent saga that saw him reject the Penguins' offer during the summer of 2011 before signing with Philadelphia.

Then there is Jarome Iginla going up against the Bruins after all of Boston -- and pretty much everybody in the NHL -- thought they had acquired him from Calgary at the trade deadline, only to have him accept a deal to Pittsburgh instead.

Oh, and did we mention that these are the two best teams in the Eastern Conference?

Yes. This is going to be awesome.

Pittsburgh offense vs. Boston Defense

The Penguins have been scoring goals this postseason like few playoff teams that we've ever seen, entering the series with an incredible 4.27 goals per game average. Their reward for all of their success through the first two rounds: A matchup featuring two of the best defensive players in the NHL in Boston's Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara. They will probably become very familiar with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin over the next two weeks, but which one is a question for Bruins coach Claude Julien to answer.

Julien has seemed to use Chara against Crosby with some relatively mixed results. Since the start of the 2007-08 season, Crosby has played more than 120 minutes against Chara at 5-on-5 with the Penguins scoring 70 percent of the goals during those minutes. Crosby himself has two goals and six assists in those head-to-head minutes. That's a point-per-minute average of .066. For his career, Crosby averages .067 points per minute.

So it's not like Chara has really slowed him much, and he hasn't exactly done much better against Malkin over the same time period.

Even more than deciding which one of Pittsburgh's top lines gets to play against Chara, the other problem for Boston is going to be what it does to slow the other line.

Boston's defense has been a little shorthanded recently due to injury, which has put a lot of young players into the lineup. They did a fine job in the second round against the Rangers, but shutting down an anemic New York offense and shutting down what Pittsburgh has are two entirely different animals.

Boston offense vs. Pittsburgh defense

Pittsburgh's defense has probably already faced the best offense that it's going to face in the Eastern playoffs (the Islanders in round one), but the way their defense has played hasn't exactly been encouraging.

Sometimes Kris Letang has been brilliant; other times he has looked lost. Brooks Orpik is still a punishing presence around the net and along the boards, but he doesn't seem to be the player that he once was. Trying to find a suitable third pairing has been a season-long adventure.

The one constant on the blue line has probably been Paul Martin, who has been their steadiest defenseman the entire season.

They've been giving up a ton of shots and some quality chances (and this goes back to the end of the regular season as well), but they've managed to get away with it because of the stellar play of Tomas Vokoun in net. Boston has a couple of big forwards that might be able to cause some problems around the net.

One thing the Penguins shouldn't do to counter that size: Insert Deryk Engelland back into the lineup to add his size and physicality. It might be tempting for coach Dan Bylsma to do given the presence of players like Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic and Jagr, but Engelland has been one of the least effective players on the Penguins' roster this postseason. When he has been on the ice at even-strength, the Penguins have been outscored 5-1 and managed to take just 36 percent of the shot attempts. Making things even worse would be the fact that he would surely be put on a pairing with Douglas Murray, which could be a disaster in the making given the lack of mobility that both players have.

Pittsburgh's defense is vulnerable, but does Boston have the firepower to take advantage of it?

One potential breakout player for Boston in this series: Jagr. This guy is just lurking in the shadows and seems like he's ready to start filling the back of the net at any moment.

He has yet to score a goal this postseason, but that's not a result of poor play. He has been everywhere for the Bruins, generating shots and creating chances, but he hasn't found the back of the net.

That's not going to last. This guy isn't going to stay off the scoresheet forever.

Goaltending

It's not that I don't have faith in Vokoun to keep doing what he has been doing for the Penguins. I do. He has been great, and he has been an outstanding goalie throughout his career at every stop along the way. His regular-season and postseason numbers match up with just about every other active goalie in the NHL, and he has more than won the opportunity to continue being Pittsburgh's starter, not only for the duration of the playoffs but perhaps even into next season.

I just think that Tuukka Rask is a little bit better.

Since the start of the 2005-06 season, only three goalies in the NHL have a better save percentage than Vokoun.

One of them is Rask. And nobody is ahead of him.

Special Teams

Pittsburgh's special teams have been outstanding through the first two rounds. That's probably one of the biggest reasons the Penguins made it through the first round against the Islanders. They come into the Eastern finals with the best power play in the playoffs, converting on an incredible 28 percent of their chances while also owning the third-best penalty kill, clicking at nearly 90 percent.

Boston's special teams have been in bizarro world from where they were during the regular season, with a strong power-play unit and a penalty kill that has been struggling.

Prediction

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