Jarome Iginla and his 516 career goals began the year in Calgary, where his Flames hadn't qualified for the playoffs since 2009. Meanwhile, Jaromir Jagr and his 665 career goals began the year in Dallas -- a newbie on a Stars team that hadn't earned a playoff berth since 2008. By late March, it had become clear that both future Hall of Famers were on teams that were headed nowhere in 2013, but thanks to deadline trades to teams that have only gotten stronger as the postseason has progressed, one of them will now play for the Stanley Cup.
Iginla and Jagr aren't quite at the same stage of their career -- Iginla, 35, is closer to his prime than Jagr, 41 -- but both have a limited number of playoff runs remaining. In Iginla's case, that means only so many chances to finally get his name on the Stanley Cup. (The closest he's come was a trip to the final with Calgary in 2004.) Jagr, meanwhile, has won twice, but not since the earliest days of his career, more than 20 years ago.
Iginla and Jagr have taken very different paths to this conference final. Iginla had been totally associated with just one team for his entire career, having played every one of his 1,200-plus NHL games in a Flames uniform. He'd been the face of the franchise for years, but the "Should the Flames trade Iginla?" debate finally came to an end shortly before the deadline. Jagr, meanwhile, has moved around plenty: The Bruins are his sixth NHL team, and third in two years after returning to North America after a stint in the KHL.
Neither Iginla or Jagr needs to carry his team these days -- not with rosters as deep and talented as Pittsburgh's or Boston's -- but they're both still capable of contributing. Iginla's been the more productive player during these playoffs, with twelve points through two rounds (tying him for fifth in the league). But the two produced points at roughly the same rate during the regular season, and one can still see flashes of the old Jagr; he's still very strong on the puck, even if it hasn't been leading to many points during the postseason.
But the two have something else in common, and it's one of the many reasons a Penguins-Bruins matchup is so compelling: Both can expect to be singled out for abuse from the opposing team's crowd.
Jagr has been booed in Pittsburgh for years, so that isn't anything new. But Iginla can expect a rude welcome when the series shifts to Boston. You'll recall that at the trade deadline, Iginla came close to becoming a Bruin. As Boston GM Peter Chiarelli tells it, the Flames and Bruins had an Iginla trade in place, but Iginla, who had a no-trade clause, decided he wanted to go to Pittsburgh instead. He's entitled to do that -- if one has a no-trade clause, one may as well use it to dictate whether he gets traded and to whom he gets traded -- but he must also live with the consequences of that decision, especially if the details become public.
Of course, the storylines of Iginla and Jagr are hardly the only ones worth paying attention to in this series.
Back in March, prior to the trade deadline, a conference final between the Penguins and Bruins looked like a very real possibility. The Penguins had been establishing themselves as team to beat in the East, while the Bruins were battling the less experienced Canadiens for the top spot in the Northeast Division. But that's not to say that this matchup was inevitable.
The Penguins cruised to the East's best record, despite losing Sidney Crosby for the final month of the regular season. But the Bruins would get caught by Montreal and have to settle for the conference's No. 4 seed. (One thing I won't miss about the current NHL playoff system, which is being revamped next year: The fact that a strong second place team can't get higher than a No. 4 seed.)
Both teams then got off to shaky starts in the playoffs. The Penguins would get Crosby back during their first-round series against the Islanders, but the ineffectiveness of Marc-Andre Fleury allowed the Islanders to take two games before Pittsburgh switched goalies and eventually finished the Isles off in six. The Bruins, meanwhile, had trouble closing out Toronto in the first round and fell behind in Game 7 before mounting an incredible comeback to eliminate the Maple Leafs (and also crush the spirit of the city of Toronto).
But both teams settled down in Round 2. Pittsburgh, with backup Tomas Vokoun in net, finished off Ottawa in five games, and Boston did the same to the Rangers. The Bruins, especially, seem to be hitting their stride again after an uneven regular season. They're a deep team whose fourth line is deservingly getting a lot of praise, and they're survived injuries to their defensive corps, with Torey Krug emerging as one of the best stories of the postseason.
Dreaming of a particular matchup in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is often quite foolish. Hockey's postseason is so unpredictable and chaotic that the teams that look dangerous at the beginning of the so-called second season aren't necessarily among the last handful standing. We can imagine which pairings would be a lot of fun -- ones that would feature great players and give us great storylines -- but then the unexpected happens, and we turn our attention to some other great story that no one saw coming. (That's what happened last year with the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings.)
But sometimes, the hockey gods give us what we want.