June 1, 2013

Bruins as ready as they'll ever be for powerhouse Pens

By Jesse Connolly

BOSTON -- The buildup has been Super Bowl-like, the anticipation akin to the eight-year wait for Daft Punk's new LP. 

After a week-long layoff, the Eastern Conference finals is finally about to begin for the Boston Bruins. They couldn't be any happier that the time for fine-tuning and dissecting is over.

"It's about time. I think everybody has had enough of these practices, " goaltender Tuukka Rask quipped, comparing the past week to a preseason-like routine. "It feels like training camp coming in to practice with shorts on."

After defeating the Maple Leafs in a thrilling, seven-game series in the first round, capped off by a miraculous comeback in the deciding tilt, the Bruins made quick work of the Rangers in the conference semis. Boston bounced the Blueshirts in five games, just as the Penguins did in their second-round showdown with the Senators. Pittsburgh's been itching to get back into action for eight days now.

"We're on the same page here," winger Shawn Thornton said when asked about both teams facing the same set of circumstances. "Both teams have to deal with it. There's no advantage or disadvantage."

Unlike the Rangers series, in which Boston essentially vanquished a team you could describe as the poor man's version of the Black and Gold, the Bruins and Penguins have varying strengths and weaknesses. 

The fact that a team led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin possesses superb offensive numbers should come as a surprise to no one. Pittsburgh has averaged more than four goals per game in these playoffs, having lit up Evgeni Nabokov and the Isles in the first round before sending Craig Anderson and the Cinderalla Sens crashing back down to Earth. 

The Penguins have also been thriving on the man advantage. Having a five-man power play unit as lethal as the combo of Crosby, Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang will do that. Knowing that the second unit features Jarome Iginla, first-line winger Pascal Dupuis and d-man Paul Martin makes the challenge seem all the more daunting.

"They have a great power play," said Rask, cognizant of a Pens' power play clicking at just under 30 percent, "so our penalty kill has to be really good."

But that's not the only area where the Bruins will have to be "really good" if they hope to defeat the top-seeded team in the East.

"We have to stay out of the box. They're dangerous," Thornton said when asked about the keys to the series. "Limit time in our zone as much as possible. It's easier said than done with their group of players. The same things you talk about every series: We've got to get traffic in front of Vokoun, we have to get pucks in, we have to be hard on pucks, we have to get pucks to the net. It's the same ol', same ol'."

Ultimately, winning this series will come down to how well the Bruins are able to do what they do best: defense and goaltending, though the Black and Gold haven't exactly been offensive slouches through two rounds, averaging 3.17 goals per game.

"We don't worry about the other side so much," Thornton said. "We're all aware how good of a team they are. That's always there. We're more concerned about what we have to do in this room." 

In that same vein, just like damn near every team that's faced the Penguins during Crosby's career, the Bruins have seen just about every hockey media outlet label them as the decided underdogs in this series. 

"Yeah, it's something that we've talked about a lot," center Patrice Bergeron said. "You need to be in your own bubble. It's about trusting yourself, trusting your abilities. You just have to worry about yourself and not what's going on on the outside."

The chance to slay the dragon and put an end to the season for the Cup-favored Penguins is certainly something Bergeron and the Bruins are looking forward to.

"We have to embrace that," Bergeron said, "embrace the challenge and take it one game at a time."

That challenge begins Saturday night at 8 o'clock at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com