The Eastern Conference finals have played out exactly as NHL fans everywhere had hoped. Pittsburgh vs. Boston. The number-1 seeded Penguins against the number-3 seeded Bruins. The B’s get their shot at taking out arguably the NHL’s best team, with an all-loaded roster led by Sidney Crosby and Evegeni Malkin.
There is no shortage of storylines for this Eastern Conference final. Matt Cooke’s return to Boston as public enemy number one. The Penguins’ explosive offensive attack against the Bruins’ stout defensive structure. Bylsma vs. Julien. And of course, there is “the trade”. Months after Jarome Iginla said no to Boston in favor of joining Pittsburgh, the would-be Flame Matt Bartkowski has become a key member of the Boston defensive unit.
It should be an excellent series. As we wait for the Western Conference semi-final series to sort themselves out, the Bruins-Penguins series is not likely to start until this weekend. In preparation, let’s take a look at how Boston and Pittsburgh match up at key positions.
Tuukka Rask – The 26-year-old Finnish netminder has been the go-to man in net for Boston from the very first drop of the puck back in January. He was solid throughout the regular season, going 19-10-5 while recording a GAA of 2.00, a save percentage of .929 with 5 shutouts. He has maintained that consistency into the playoffs with an 8-4 record through two series while posting a GAA of 2.22 and a save percentage of .928.
Rask has gotten stronger as the Bruins have gotten deeper into the playoffs. The opening round series was a battle andTuukka’s play, much like the rest of the Bruins, was very up and down. His GAA was at 2.49 against the Leafs as him and the B’s nearly blew a 3-1 series lead. Boston collectively were much better in round 2 against the Rangers, and Rask led the way. Minus a small misstep in game 4 that saw the now infamous “Tuukka Tumble” set the stage for some New York dramatics, Rask put to bed any talk of a 2010 repeat by figuratively and literally shutting the door on the Rangers in game 5, making 28 saves en route to a 3-1 Boston win. He ended the series with New York with a GAA of 1.86, a marked improvement from round 1.
The Bruins have hit their stride, as they get set for the Eastern Conference Finals, and it’s no surprise that this coincides with Rask’s strong play in net. His calm, under control style is a big deviation from what we saw with Tim Thomas during the 2011 cup run, but he has become a stabilizing presence for Boston and his teammates clearly have the utmost confidence in him.
Rask will have to elevate his game yet again, however, and be great rather than just good if the B’s want to knock off the powerful Penguins.
Tomas Vokoun – The 36-year-old journeyman goaltender has been one of the surprises of the 2013 NHL playoffs. After Pittsburgh’s usual starting goalie, Marc Andre Fluery, could not get the job down against the Islanders in the first round, Vokoun was inserted as the starter for game 5 and all he has done is go 6-1 since, providing the Penguins with much more consistency in net and rewarding head coach Dan Bylsma for making the gutsy decision to stray away from the goalie he won a cup with.
There is no doubt about it, Vokoun has been very good since taking over the starting job late in the Pens first round battle with New York. His play has sort of flown under the radar amidst the explosion of offense Pittsburgh has put forth. He is sporting a GAA of 1.85 and a save percentage of .941 thus far, and most importantly, he has given the Penguins a steady and consistent presence in the back end, something Fleury has failed to do for two consecutive playoffs now.
I do think this is an area that the Bruins could exploit, though. Despite his numbers, I do not think Vokoun has really been tested as of yet. There hasn’t been a ton of pressure on him since the Penguins have been scoring almost 6 goals a game. The Ottawa Senators really were not able to put up much of a fight as Vokoun and the Penguins cruised into the Eastern Conference Finals.
Who has the edge?
In the goaltending department, I have to give the slight edge to Boston. Rask has been the picture of consistency all season long and really hasn’t wavered as the playoffs have moved along. Boston knows what they are going to get out of him basically night in and night out. He has been steady from the start, gotten stronger as the B’s have moved deeper into the post-season, and has shown flashes of brilliance in some key moments.
Vokoun, despite being a 36-year-old veteran, is still a bit of a playoff rookie. His 7 games this season has doubled his previous playoff games played. Despite posting very solid numbers, I don’t think he has really been tested yet and I think the B’s have the depth and ability to put some pressure on him. It will be interesting to see how he reacts.