The NHL’s Eastern and Western Conference Finals series are set to begin this weekend, and the league could not have asked for better match ups with their four remaining teams. In the West we have the 2012 Champion Los Angeles Kings against the 2010 Champion Chicago Blackhawks, and in the East the 2011 Champion Boston Bruins square off against the 2009 Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. This has the potential for some great hockey with four great teams aiming to become repeat champions after a decade of one-and-done Stanley Cup winners (I’m just glad “Season Not Played” wasn’t the one to break through again).
With the Bruins playing the Penguins, you have two deep rosters who are not afraid of each other, who can roll out four lines. The Penguins are the more skilled team, with a roster that boasts Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, and Kris Letang, while the Bruins are known for their physically imposing, turning-defense-into-offense style headlined by Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Dennis Seidenberg, and Patrice Bergeron. This is a playoff series I have wanted to see since 2009, as these two teams have consistently ranked among the superpowers of the Eastern Conference, but this is the first time they have met in the playoffs since the Conference Finals in 1992 (the same year Tyler Seguin was born). That hasn’t stopped the bad blood, bitterness, and resentment from festering, though.
Jarome Iginla. This wound is the freshest in the minds of Bruins fans. Iggy gave the Calgary Flames a list of four teams he would be willing to be traded to, the four remaining teams in the tournament, but when a deal was made with the Bruins, he backed out and asked Flames GM Jay Feaster to make a deal with Pittsburgh instead. The Bruins front office was operating with the understanding that they had a deal, and Bruins fans went to bed thinking Iginla would be wearing black and gold in his next game…turns out they were right, but it was the lame knockoff black and gold that the Penguins adopted some sixty years after the Bruins had established themselves with. He chose to play with Crosby and Malkin instead of Chara and Bergeron. He thought he had a better chance to win the Stanley Cup, the only accolade missing from his Hall of Fame career, with them instead of with Boston. At the end of the series, the two teams will shake hands, but I hope it is with the Bruins moving on and with Iginla having to look into the eyes and shake the hands of every potential teammate he turned his back on while they pursue a second Stanley Cup in three years. The North remembers.
Matt Cooke. The Bruins’ power play is only picking up in this playoff tournament after two and a half years of futility after Matt Cooke effectively ended Marc Savard’s playing career. Savvy was the key to the Bruins’ power play and the key to their offense. Although Shawn Thornton got him back that season, Bruins fans are still not over that. Cooke is one of the dirtiest players of his generation, and deserves no benefit of the doubt even if he claims to be a reformed man. He’s not flying around elbowing heads anymore, but he’s still a sneaky weasel of a cheap shot artist at heart. Just ask Erik Karlsson.
The bad blood between these two teams dates back to the early 90s, and the names from back then are still part of the narrative. Cam Neely is now the Bruins President of Hockey Operations. Mario Lemieux is now the owner of the Penguins. Mark Recchi raised the Cup for the third time with Boston in 2011, and Jaromir Jagr now suits up for the Bruins. This is a series that should have happened a few years ago, and now we finally get to see it.
The Bruins were swept by the Penguins in the regular season this year. That means very little about how the Eastern Conference Finals will play out, though. Two of those games were the second nights of back-to-back games for the B’s so they played Anton Khudobin in net instead of Tuukka Rask. The game Rask did start was a strange one as well. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand were both out with concussions, Nathan Horton left mid-game with an injury after fighting (you guessed it) Jarome Iginla, and Milan Lucic was a healthy scratch after playing like garbage for well over a month. Now, Bergy and Marchand are healthy, so is Horton, and The Incredible Looch is awake, angry, and back to being the mean green smashing machine Bruins fans know and love. The Penguins still have better high end talent, but the Bruins are a more disciplined, more unrelenting team than anyone Pittsburgh has faced in the playoffs, when they want to be.
There is nothing better than having your hometown hockey team still playing in June. Hopefully the Bruins can prove that they are worthy of being there, and can go toe to toe with the other recent champions. We finally get a chance to see how the last four Stanley Cup champs stack up against each other, and it should be a great few weeks for hockey fans in America.
The Bruins haven’t played in a week, so let’s get this thing started already! Go Bruins!!!