For the second series in a row, Penguins winger Matt Cooke will be cast as a villain by opposing fans.
In the second round against Ottawa, it was because Senators star defenseman Erik Karlsson was hurt on a play involving Cooke in February.
In the Eastern Conference final against Boston, which begins at 8:10 p.m. Saturday at Consol Energy Center, it will be because of a hit Cooke made on the Bruins' Marc Savard -- more than three years ago.
"I can't control people's opinions," Cooke said Thursday after practice. "I've learned that fans have emotions toward certain things, and they're going to be attached to them.
"I need to go out and prepare to play against the Bruins to the best of my ability. If I'm worried about that, it's going to affect me in a negative way."
Savard had to be helped off the ice and had a concussion after the hit in March 2010 and hasn't played the past two seasons. That hit, which was legal at the time, helped induce the NHL to crack down on hits to the head.
Cooke has made an effort to clean up his game -- he hasn't been suspended in more than two years -- without stripping away the physical aspect.
"I think he's much more responsible out there," captain Sidney Crosby said. "I think his play has proved that. I don't think he needs to talk about it. I think he's done that by the way he's played.
"He did a great job against Ottawa just blocking all that out and just playing hockey -- and playing really good hockey, at that. That might bring out the best in him, having that [controversy]. That's not a bad thing for us. He's handled it really, really well."
The Penguins don't make an issue of the playing surface at Consol Energy Center very often and, really, discuss it only when an outsider brings it up.
That doesn't mean they're unaware of the state of the ice there. Or that they're pleased with it.
"To be honest, the ice conditions haven't been that good at all this year," defenseman Matt Niskanen said this week. "I think we're kind of used to it."
Perhaps, but they also seemed to be braced for the possibility it could get even worse by Game 1 because of the current hot and humid weather.
"The ice, at this time of year, it gets tougher to keep it good," forward Craig Adams said. "Maybe that will become a factor.
"We'd all like to have really hard, fast ice to skate on and pass the puck on, but the old cliche that 'both teams have to play on it' [applies]."
True, but a faster ice surface tends to benefit the Penguins.
A lot of them, anyway.
"The way I skate, the more messed up it is, the more even the playing field," winger Brenden Morrow said, smiling. "So it doesn't really bother me that much."
If Morrow wasn't joking, there's reason to believe he'll be one of the few happy with the ice when Game 1 arrives.
"It's tough to find that mix of keeping it cold enough that it stays frozen but soft enough that it's not chipping all over," he said.
"There's a lot of snow out there right now. I don't know if it's going to be as bad on Saturday, when the games start, but it's pretty bad."
Gathering of champions
For the first time since 1945, the four teams remaining in the playoffs are the past four Stanley Cup winners -- the Penguins in 2009, Chicago in 2010, the Bruins in 2011 and Los Angeles last year.
Niskanen said that means one thing.
"Whoever wants to break through and win this thing is going to be well-deserved because it's going to be tough," he said. "What it tells me is there are four really good teams, experienced teams with the core of each team still intact. It's going to be an exciting conference final on both sides."
Boston rookie defenseman Matt Bartkowski, a Mt. Lebanon native, watched winger Jaromir Jagr play for the 1990s Penguins. Now, they are teammates.
"It was surreal at first," Bartkowski said of an NHL deadline deal that brought Jagr, 41, to the Bruins from Dallas. "It's cool. Him and Mario [Lemieux] were the two big guys. I remember growing up watching Jagr. I never even thought about playing with him.
"He's a great guy around the locker room, real nice, funny, a good team guy. It's just an awesome situation to have him here."
The Penguins had full attendance at practice, including winger Chris Kunitz, who did not skate Wednesday. ... At its practice in Wilmington, Mass., Boston skated with everyone but David Krejci, who is leading the playoffs in scoring with 17 points. Coach Claude Julien said Krejci just needed a "minimal maintenance" day. ... Because the Penguins made the Eastern Conference final, the conditional draft pick they sent to San Jose in the Douglas Murray trade becomes a second-round pick in 2014. ... The Penguins assigned defenseman Derrick Pouliot, one of their two first-round draft picks from 2012, to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. Pouliot, 19, helped the Portland Winterhawks win the Western Hockey League championship and reach the final of the Memorial Cup. He had 9 goals, 36 assists and 60 penalty minutes in 44 games and added 20 points in 21 playoff games. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is in its conference final against Syracuse.
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly. Dave Molinari: email@example.com and Twitter @MolinariPG. Jenn Menendez: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @jennmenendez. First Published May 31, 2013 4:00 AM