Johnston on NHL: Iginla, Morrow will get their answer

Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow both chose to go to the Pittburgh Penguins over the Boston Bruins ahead of the trade deadline. (AP photos)

For a player with designs on winning the Stanley Cup, this was no easy choice.

Pittsburgh or Boston?

With high aspirations heading into the trade deadline, the two recent champions were among the Eastern Conference elite and looking to bolster already impressive rosters.

Naturally, both the Bruins and Penguins identified veteran forwards Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow as two that could help. They each made serious pitches to franchises willing to unload their long-time captain and both players came to the same conclusion when they decided to waive no-trade clauses:

One team offered a better shot at the Stanley Cup than the other.

“Jarome and Brenden picked to come to Pittsburgh for that opportunity, for that chance,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said recently. “With both guys we know where they’re at in their careers. They’re veteran guys – they’ve won a lot of hockey games, they’ve won different medals and different championships – but they haven’t won a Stanley Cup.

“Having them come to Pittsburgh is largely them choosing to come to our team to have a chance to (change that).”

The decision will be put directly to the test over the next couple weeks.

This will be an Eastern Conference final brimming with storylines. You almost knew these teams would end up meeting in the playoffs, especially when Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli held a candid press conference the day after the Iginla trade and said he had a deal in place with Calgary before something went unexpectedly wrong.

He implied that Iginla himself had derailed the deal.

During the only game between the teams after the trade snafu – April 20 at TD Garden – Iginla ended up squaring off for a fight with Nathan Horton. And Boston figured it wasn’t yet done with Pittsburgh.

“I always thought you had to go through them to get to where we want to go at some point,” Chiarelli said Sunday.

The Bruins would end up making a deadline move for another veteran winger, Jaromir Jagr, who coincidentally has strong ties to the Penguins. He also happens to be in that franchise’s bad books (it would be difficult to make this stuff up).

The 40-year-old won two Stanley Cups and five scoring titles early in his career with Pittsburgh and famously toyed with them in contract negotiations when he decided to return to North American in 2011.

The Penguins were so irked by the process that they took the unprecedented step of sending out a press release to call off negotiations and Jagr wound up signing with the rival Philadelphia Flyers instead.

However, the big Czech still casts a strong shadow over the organization and has his face painted on a mural outside the team’s dressing room at Consol Energy Center as part of the wall of honour – although the current day Penguins claim not to have paid it any mind.

“I haven’t thought of it,” Bylsma said.

It will be hard to ignore once the Eastern Conference final gets underway either Wednesday or Thursday night.

The deal for Iginla has been the best of the late-season additions by the teams. He’s played out of position on the left wing alongside Evgeni Malkin and James Neal and put up 12 points in 11 games.

Morrow has largely been used on an effective fourth line by the Penguins while Jagr is still looking for his first goal of the post-season.

There are bound to be plenty of other talking points in the Boston-Pittsburgh series as well, including how effective Zdeno Chara can be in neutralizing Sidney Crosby and how the Bruins treat Matt Cooke (he is still persona non grata in Boston because of a punishing 2010 hit that essentially ended Marc Savard’s career).

One guarantee is that there will be some bad blood and Chiarelli expects it to get his players even more fired up than they already would be.

“There’s some storylines that I’m sure will be highlighted that’ll probably help them a little bit whether they admit it or not,” Chiarelli said.

The Penguins, meanwhile, are drawing some inspiration from Iginla and Morrow. Bylsma has acknowledged that the well-liked veterans bring a similar dynamic to the one Ray Bourque did for Colorado in 2001 – giving their younger teammates a little bit extra to play for.

Amazingly, this is already the second-longest playoff run of Iginla’s NHL career, with the only previous trip out of the first round coming during Calgary’s surprising run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 2004.

That is a loss that still haunts him.

However, one thing that has surprised the 35-year-old winger since coming to Pittsburgh is that his desire to get his hands on the Stanley Cup has grown even stronger than it had been earlier in his career.

“I want to win even more,” Iginla said. “You only have so many cracks at it and being on a team as good as this, I think we have a real opportunity. …

“You imagine how it would be and you see so many different people do it over the years – friends and ex-teammates – and you’d love to get a crack at it.”

He now stands four wins over Boston away from doing just that.

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