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Wednesday, 29 May 2013 17:24

Eastern Conference Finals Positional Breakdown: Defense

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Zdeno Chara and Kris Letang will lead their respective defensive corps in the Eastern Conference Finals.We now have a date for game 1 of this much-anticipated series, with the Bruins and Penguins set to kick things off Saturday night at 8:00 pm at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.

With three full days standing between us and the Eastern Conference Finals, lets continue our breakdown of the two teams’ rosters by analyzing the defensive corps of both the Bruins and the Penguins.

Boston

Strong defensive structure has been a trademark of Claude Julien’s coaching philosophy throughout his career, and he has embedded that into the makeup of his Boston Bruins teams since his arrival in 2007. He preaches strong, team defense, asking his teams to take care of their own end first and then moving up ice to go on the attack. The current edition of the Boston Bruins does not deviate from this plan.

The Bruins have literally been built from the back out and once again boasted one of the league’s best defensive games, allowing just the third fewest goals per game in the NHL at 2.21. While a good portion of that credit goes to Tuukka Rask, a lion’s share has to go to Julien’s defense-first philosophy, and more specifically, their stout group of defensemen.

Any discussion of Boston’s defense starts with their hulking, 6’9” Slovakian captain Zdeno Chara. He is the unquestioned best shutdown defenseman in the NHL, capable of playing huge minutes, in every single game-situation, and almost always being matched up against the other teams’ best offensive players. Most of the time, any Bruin success is fueled by the play of Big Z. Chara will be partnered with Dennis Seidenberg, and together they form one of the best shutdown d-pairings in the NHL. They were huge for the B’s during their 2011 Stanley Cup run and were huge again during the first round against Toronto. The big question mark there will be the healthy of Seidenberg who missed the first four games of the series with New York before returning for game 5 due to an undisclosed, lower-body injury. If he can return to form, then they should have a good chance at slowing down the line of Evegeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla and James Neal.

The big surprise this post season so far has been the play of rookie defensemen Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug. Bartkowski has been a very steady, physical presence on the backend, is a very strong skater and has shown a strong ability to move the puck up ice either by skating it or making a good first pass. Krug, who is also adept at carrying the puck and making that first pass, has been a key offensive contributor since being inserted into the lineup. He scored four goals during the five-game series with New York, three of which coming on the powerplay, and all of which being very important goals within the games that they came in. It will be interesting to see how the two rookies deal with the high-powered Pittsburgh attack.

Two rugged, physical mainstays in the B’s lineup the last couple of years round out the d-group. Johnny Boychuk, who has been paired with Bartkowski throughout the last series, brings a physical presence to the Bruin defense. He loves to step up in the offensive zone and either deliver a punishing check or keep the puck alive and sustaining offensive pressure. His rocket shot has also been a weapon as he is tied with Krug for second on the B’s in post-season goals with four. McQuaid is your prototypical bottom pairing, bruising defenseman. He uses his big frame to push guys around in the corner, is a very solid penalty killer, and is not afraid to drop the gloves and come to the aid of a teammate.

If any of this group should falter or suffer an injury, Boston has the luxury of veteran d-men Wade Redden and Andrew Ference, along with talented rookie Dougie Hamilton in waiting, ready to step up if called upon.

Pittsburgh

The Penguins are a team that is usually going to win thanks to scoring. A lot. Defense is a sort of secondary concept to Dan Bylsma’s squad, with a roster water logged with all-star talent up front. That said, Pitt will ice a defensive group that is pretty well balanced, with a mix of stay-at-home types and puck-movers.

Kris Letang is the Penguins number one guy on defense. He is also the exact opposite of what Zdeno Chara is. Undersized, but extremely fleet of foot, the 2013 Norris Trophy finalist gets the job done by helping to generate offense from the backend. He currently leads the NHL in post-season assists with 13. He has also chipped in three goals and helps make an already dangerous offense and powerplay even more so with his ability to jump up into the play and score. Letang is usually paired with Mark Eaton, a steady, not-so-flashy stay at home type that really balances out the pairing nicely.

The Pens will likely counter the Bruins’ top line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton by matching them up with their own shutdown pair of Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin. These are two guys that are very strong in their own end. Orpik is one of the better shutdown guys in the league, albeit not in the class of Zdeno Chara, and Martin is a guy who is strong in his own end and who has the ability to facilitate a smooth breakout.

The Penguins bottom pairing is made up of Douglas Murray and Matt Niskanen. Murray is another of Pittsburgh’s deadline pickups whom they got from San Jose. He’s an extremely large, extremely physical Swedish-born defensemen. He is slow, however, and can be exposed by coming at him with some speed. Niskanen is a guy who at one point was considered a top defensive prospect in the Dallas Stars’ system. He had top-end offensive instincts for a defenseman and was highly regarded. He never really put it all together however, but he has found comfort and consistency in his role with Pittsburgh.

Who has the edge?

This is much closer when you look at all of the pieces of each team’s defense on paper. Both squads will ice solid shutdown pairs, physical defensemen, as well as guys who will contribute offensively. With all things considered, though, I would give the slight edge to Boston here based on their number one pairing alone. If Seidenberg is healthy, him and Chara will play huge minutes and will be a good counter to the high-powered Pittsburgh offense. The x-factor will be the play of the two rookies. If Krug can continue to produce as he has, and Bartkowski continues to grow on that second pair where he’ll likely see a lot of Sidney Crosby, it will go a long way for Boston.

In the end, there is really no way Boston will be able to completely shut down the Penguins. They have too many weapons. The key will be containing them while hoping their offense continues to breakout as it did during the Rangers series.