By Wayne Whittaker, Boston Bruins Correspondent
Rarely in sports do we get what we want. As players, management, media, and fans, the landscape of professional sports is always evolving, shifting, and surprising. Yet sometimes it becomes quite clear that certain things were just meant to be. A Conference Finals matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins feels like it was meant to be.
Coming into the 2013 season, the Penguins and Bruins were penciled as Eastern Conference favorites by many pundits. As the season unfolded, it became clear the Penguins could very well be on their way to another Stanley Cup, while it took all of the regular season and the first 12 games of the playoffs to finally see the potential of this Boston team.
With the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs complete, only two teams remain in the East. And they’re the two teams that deserve to be there.
This series is not just about hockey, it’s also ripe with subplots.
When Jarome Iginla became a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he told the media how happy he was to be “just another one of the guys” in the Pens playoff run. Well, sorry Jarome, that will no longer be the case. If there’s going to be a single spotlight burning brighter in this best-of-seven series, it will be focused squarely on #12.
No longer just one of the guys, he is now Jarome “Here’s a list of
teams team I will accept a trade to” Iginla.
Who can forget one of the more fascinating stories of the 2013 season? A late night trade between the Calgary Flames and the Boston Bruins which nearly sent Matt Bartkowski, Alexander Khokhlachev, and a 1st round pick to Calgary for the face of their franchise in Jarome Iginla. The word leaked out to the media, and soon it was confirmed as a “done deal” by TSN.
What actually happened is that Flames general manager Jay Feaster went to Iginla to tell him he had been traded to a Stanley Cup contender, as he had requested. Iginla then expressed his right to choose, and forced Feaster into accepting a deal from Pittsburgh.
Boston was sent scrambling for a solution to their scoring woes, and opted to trade for another future hall-of-famer, former Pittsburgh legend Jaromir Jagr. All of this eventually set up quite the grudge match. But the history between these two clubs doesn’t end there.
In 1991, the Boston Bruins had a Stanley Cup caliber team that was looking for another chance at a championship after losing to the Edmonton Oilers just one year earlier. And after two games in the Wales Conference Championship round, it looked like Boston may get that chance. Up 2-0 against a young Jaromir Jagr and the Penguins, the Bruins went to Pittsburgh with the chance to close out the series.
Instead, the Pens rattled off four straight wins on their way to the first of two consecutive Stanley Cup victories. The most infamous moment of this series involves a knee-to-knee hit from Ulf Samuelson on Bruins’ legend Cam Neely. The hit sidelined Neely and set off a string of chronic knee and leg injuries, before a degenerative hip disorder forced Neely into an early retirement.
The Bruins and Penguins met again in 1992, but the stacked Penguins swept Boston. And the two haven’t met in the post-season since then.
The modern day Penguins/Bruins rivalry is no less intense. Both teams have won a Stanley Cup in the past five years, and both teams are looking for another banner. Pittsburgh won all three meetings between the two clubs in the regular season (all decided by one goal), but never boasted their fully stacked and healthy lineup with a seemingly unfair number of offensive weapons- Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Iginla, Kunitz, Dupuis, Letang.
On the other end of the ice, Boston has struggled to have all of their offensive lines clicking at once. Individuals have outperformed their peers, while struggling wingers like Tyler Seguin and Jaromir Jagr look to find their game. The time for searching is up, and it’s now time to perform. Defensively, Boston is in great shape. Behind Zdeno Chara, the Bruins defensive corps is one of the league’s best. Rookie sensation Torey Krug will look to continue his improbable post-season success, while Wade Redden and Andrew Ference continue to recover from injuries.
The Penguins are talented enough to seamlessly cover up their own imperfections. The goaltending situation in the Steel City couldn’t be more confusing. Marc-Andre Fleury, a proven Stanley Cup champion net minder, has struggled mightily in recent postseasons. While Tomas Vokoun, generally considered a slightly better than average goaltender, has looked like a Vezina trophy candidate. The question is whether or not Vokoun can sustain his dominating performance, and if Boston can rattle either net minder.
Tuukka Rask was able to escape the first two rounds of the playoffs with his reputation intact. Nevermind his stellar play, the 25-year old Finnish goaltender would have be unable to escape the “choker” label or Tim Thomas comparisons had he not won both the Toronto and New York series. Thankfully, the Bruins have never been a group that relies on “what-ifs.” Rask is looking to cement his status as an elite level goalie, and a possible upset in the Conference Finals would be his perfect opportunity to do so.
This is going to be a tough, memorable, frustrating and exhausting series. Hyperbole aside, this is a true battle for Eastern Conference supremacy. Whoever survives this round of Hell will have earned the right to contend for the Stanley Cup, and it all begins in Pittsburgh later this week.