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It's Eastern Conference Finals Eve, Boston vs. Pittsburgh, when thoughts of Mario Lemieux torturing Ray Bourque swirl in our heads, somewhere Andy Moog is waking up in a cold sweat, and the Tale of the Tape between these two titans becomes urgent and required reading. Our thoughts and prayers are with Ulf Samuelsson's right thigh, which is to this day still traumatized by Cam Neely's carelessness. And we wish Vladimir Ruzicka the best in his quest to forget everything that happened after his 5-point performance in Game 2 in 1991. Let's break this down.
This is always our most important category, because it defines the NHL playoffs. If you can play, you can play, but if you can't overcome adversity, you can't win. The Bruins had that historic comeback against the Leafs when they were down three goals in the third period of Game 7, and down two goals with 1:22 left in regulation. Amazing, unprecedented stuff from the Bruins. But you know what else is amazing? The fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs took a 4-1 lead in Game 7 against Boston in Boston. You don't give Bill Clinton credit for still being married to Hillary because no one gets obstacle overcomeability points for overcoming themselves.
The Penguins saw Marc-Andre Fleury - arguably their most important piece of the playoff puzzle heading into round 1 - melt down against the Islanders. They're still meshing as team and figuring out who belongs in the lineup. Their captain and best player is only now setting aside a face shield that - believe it or not - limited his effectiveness. They face enormous external pressure to win and win going away. And all the Penguins are doing is getting better.
Read on for the rest of the categories ...
The bad news for the Pens is that this is one Tale of the Tape category that they can never win, at least as currently constituted. Unless like 8 guys get hurt, we're not seeing anyone play whose ceiling we don't already know, or at least have a pretty good idea.
|"Brian Dumoulin is not walking through that door!"|
Hair is about appearance, but it's also about trust. And if you can't trust your captain's hair, how can you trust your captain?
Here's Bruins' captain Zdeno Chara winning the Stanley Cup.
He looks like any other 6'9" man struggling with hair loss, probably figuring that no one will see the top of his head. But here he is at the parade a few days later.
Are we really supposed to believe that it's natural for a 30+ year-old-man to magically patch-up his male pattern baldness in a few days? Get real.
Zdeno made a deal with the devil to win that Cup. Now the debt has come due.
Time to check in with the Women of GTOG for their thoughts on this always crucial factor.
Mrs. Artistry: Edge, Penguins.
Artistry's Mom: Edge, Penguins.
This is a forward looking category -- think 10 or 15 years in the future and ask yourself whose legacy is more positively or negatively impacted by winning or losing this series.
In the upside department, the Pens have more to gain, if only because they have two players who will be far more memorable than anyone on the Bruins. If the Pens go on to win the Cup, Crosby and Malkin each get a second Cup and become, without any further question, the two defining players of the salary cap era, which would instantly come to be known as the Sid and Geno Era. And because of their popularity and excellence, the Penguins become the defining post-lockout team. Fair or not, that's how life works. If Boston wins, then they can make a better argument for having the best team post-lockout, though there will still be plenty of other teams making a case in what would be an ongoing debate. From an individual perspective, outside of Chara, the Bruins aren't really defined as individuals -- if they win the Cup, they'll basically have 6 or 7 guys who will be remembered like Patrick Elias is remembered. (I mean that as a compliment).
|Such a memorable face.|
All of this is a long way of saying that it will be awesome if the Pens win so that we can make fun of the Bruins' Cup in 2011.
We've made our thoughts on Jaromir Jagr clear this week, but to summarize: we're basically out of thoughts on Jagr. It is the classic it-is-what-it-is situation. He didn't want to play for the Pens last year. We're over it.
|"I ain't over it."|
Nevertheless, this will be made into a story all while being downplayed by the Bruins' players. If Boston loses the series, they will continue to downplay it. But if they win? Boy, did we show him!
The Islanders were annoying in the way that it's annoying to play pickup basketball against a guy who hustles and sets a lot of screens. He's not doing anything wrong, but who wants the hassle? The only annoying thing the Senators did was make you feel guilty for beating them so badly.
The Bruins are a whole different animal in this department. Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic are this year's Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell -- you want to laugh at them like you do to a Chris Neil, but they're actually good players. Nathan Horton's face when he scores is Cammalleri-esque. Gregory Campbell's dad works for the NHL -- not his fault, but also not our fault for hating him. Pierre McGuire will verbally fellate Patricie Bergeron the first time he makes a good defensive play on Crosby. Tyler Seguin has 1 goal in 12 games, so he will probably score a hat trick Game 1, and then you'll read stories about him being part of the Phil Kessel trade and then you'll be like, "I'm already disgusted and now I'm being forced to read about Phil Kessel?" David Krejci is going to make some sick pass that embarrasses Matt Niskanen, and then McGuire will scream, "KREJCI'S IN HIS HEAD, DOC! DAVY KREJCI IS IN MATTY NISKANEN'S HEAD, DOC!" Jaromir Jagr will make a diving motion at Crosby while we furiously Google "Paul Pierce wheelchair." And you know at least one of their rookie defensemen is going to goad Evgeni Malkin into a bad penalty.
|You will see this face. Just be ready for it.|
Dejan Kovacevic wrote about the Letang-Chara "match-up" the other day and figured that whoever outplayed the other one would win the series. But in reality, it's not quite that simple. Letang doesn't need to outperform Chara -- he needs to prove that he can do for the Pens what Chara can do for Boston. As great of a player as Letang is and can be, he hasn't anchored a defense to a Stanley Cup the way Chara did for Boston in 2011. When the Pens won the Cup in 2009, Letang averaged 19:18 of ice time per game in the playoffs, the fifth most among Pens' defensemen, and finished with a +1 rating. When the Bruins won the Cup in 2011, Chara averaged 27:39 per game and was a +16.
This isn't to say that Letang can't do it, just that he hasn't. Yet. So far this post-season, Letang is averaing 27 minutes per game and could realistically end up leading the playoffs in scoring by the time it's over. He's been that good. But it also isn't getting any easier.
Chara isn't a target for Letang to beat. He's a measuring stick.
|"I'll take this one, guys."|
This category is less about the more commonly discussed intangibles like leadership, toughness, want-to, really-want-do, sorta-want-to, and definitely-want-to than it is about the ultimate intangible -- whether the invisible hand of destiny will decide to intervene. The Pens don't really have anything in this department; for Boston, the question is whether the whole Boston Strong movement in the wake of the marathon bombings is going to be an emotional factor in this series. It's hard to imagine that it's still going to be, given the amount of tributes, anthems, Sweet Carolines, and all of the other sports-related ceremonies and memorials that have been done already and, of course, the fact that the Pens have already played there in the immediate aftermath (and won). If anything, the emotional toll and the toll on convenience from the manhunt was a negative for Boston: they closed the regular season by going 2-5 and then nearly (and probably should have) lost to Toronto. Now things have returned to normal and the Bruins are rested. That's a scarier thought than destiny intervening.
FINAL SCORE: 5-5
Boston can and might win this series. They are a really good team without a lot of weaknesses the Pens can exploit. But if the Pens are who we all think they are, the Pens will win this series. An eight day break leaves a lot of time for breaking down specific match-ups, but it all comes back to the most basic match-up: who has better players? Unless something weird starts happening, the Pens don't have any glaring weaknesses that Boston can exploit to overcome the simple fact that the Pens have more better players. Not much better. But better.
Pens in 6.