The St. Louis Blues have met the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final before. The year was 1970 and the Bruins won the series and the Cup thanks to a Game Four goal in overtime that led to one of the most iconic images in hockey history. The picture of Bobby Orr sailing through the air in celebration is well-ensconced as a fixture of the game’s beauty and joy.
A lot has changed since then. But the Bruins are back in the hunt once more, seeking their seventh championship – and their first since 2011. This marks the 20th time in franchise history that Boston’s made the Final and the third time in the past nine years. This team knows the score. They know the terrain.
The Blues, on the other hand, aren’t supposed to be here. Dead last in the league in January, they will endeavour to become the first team in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup after sitting in the basement after their 20th game. St. Louis went through a coaching change and had to recalibrate their entire approach to get to here.
And they’re up against a more experienced squad in the Bruins, of that there is no doubt. Of course, Boston has enjoyed more than a few days off since sweeping Carolina out of the Eastern Conference Final. The Blues were in tough against San Jose for a time before pulling it together and taking the series in Game Six.
The Bruins average 3.35 goals for per game, but the scoring has been spread out. No player has reached double-digit goals in these playoffs, while four players have more than five. Patrice Bergeron leads the way with eight goals in 17 post-season games. Six of his eight are power play goals. His 63 shots on goal are most on the Bs.
His linemates, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, have seven goals apiece. Marchand has the points edge with 18, due in large part for his tendency to play in the trenches and make some unreal passes. He’s set up Pastrnak for more than a few beauties, so the Blues will have to look for a way to contain the duo.
The Bruins do generate slightly more shots than the Blues, averaging about 33.6 to St. Louis’ 30.9, and their power play is a lot more potent. Boston’s clocking a ridiculous 34 percent with the man-advantage, which means the Blues want to stamp out any trips to the sin bin.
We’ve talked a lot about Jaden Schwartz and it’s time to play “Gloria” again. He’s the scoring leader for St. Louis, with a dozen goals in 19 games. He has 10 fewer shots than Bergeron, but he’s at the core of his team’s offensive drive with a 22.6 shooting percentage. Schwartz has scored more goals in the post-season than the regular season.
Vladimir Tarasenko has come alive for his team, scoring three goals against the Sharks and tempering his ice time well. The 27-year-old is second on the team with eight goals, plus he’s the shots leader with 64. He’s a minus-five, however, joining forward Brayden Schenn for the bottom of the barrel.
The Blues average three goals a game, a hair behind the Bruins, and they don’t shoot the puck as much. They can compile a more belligerent foreplay, though, and that could lead to more takeaways and forced turnovers. If St. Louis can generate offence on the fly and put together a physical game, they can overcome a tame power play and find the offensive edge.
The Bruins are allowing under two goals against per game. At 1.94 goals against per game, it’s safe to say Boston’s defence is getting the job done. You could argue it’s all Tuukka Rask and, honestly, that’s a pretty safe position. But the Bears have covered by cutting down on giveaways in their own zone and mopping up the crease.
Charlie McAvoy averages 2.1 blocked shots per game, which sticks him in the firing lane a lot. The Bruins haven’t been as physical as the Blues in these playoffs, but their defensive style will rely on positioning and crowding the path to the net. With Zdeno Chara due back for Game One Monday, size will once again matter.
The Bruins have been pretty sweet on the penalty kill at 86.3 percent. Boston averages about 6:21 of penalty minutes a game, but that hasn’t tested their resolve. That’s partly because of Rask, as expected, who’s .924 on the PK. But it’s also because the Black and Gold allow far fewer shorthanded scoring chances against than their opponents.
There are three things to discuss when it comes to the St. Louis D. First, they hold the edge in blocked shots. They’ve blocked a recorded 274 in these playoffs. Alex Pietrangelo, like Boston’s McAvoy, has blocked 2.1 shots per game.
Second, St. Louis is the more physical team. They lead the Bruins in hits, by a fair margin in fact (558-510), and can play a gruelling game. Blues forward Sammy Blais, appearing in eight games in these playoffs, has 48 hits. Oskar Sundqvist, Ivan Barbashev and Schenn also play physical hockey, recording at least 50 hits each.
Finally, the Bluenotes know how to propel their attack from the back end. That positions them for up-ice rushes, which build from a tactic that forces turnovers from physical play. If St. Louis can shove Boston to the outside and limit their options to the perimeter, they can turn the puck around and generate scoring chances from the defensive zone.
Of course, said scoring chances are going to run into Tuukka Rask and that’s where the trouble really begins for St. Louis. Much ink has been spilled about the play of Boston’s netminder, who’s just lights-out. Rask has been building a Conn Smythe-winning performance and it’s up to the Blues to get in his head.
That won’t be easy. Rask boasts a .942 save percentage and a 1.84 goals against average. He’s .945 at even strength, with two shutouts. In high danger chances, he is .892. And when he’s ready to shut down a series? Rask is .990 when his Bruins can eliminate someone.
Much has been made about St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington’s calm conduct in these playoffs. The 25-year-old emerged as the team’s starter in January and has everything to do with the success of the Blues. In the post-season, he’s shown a few cracks but has mostly been where he needs to be.
Binnington is .914 with a 2.36 goals against average. At even strength, he has a .926 save percentage and a 2.03 goals against average. And in high danger situations, he is .786. He’s recorded a shutout in these playoffs and allowed just three goals in his last three games.
The cliché goes that goaltending wins championships and that is positively the case here. While the Blues have the physicality, there’s, uh, Tuukka Rask. St. Louis will have to find an answer if they want to win the Cup, but that’s a near impossible task. More effective offences than theirs have tried and failed.
With that in mind, the Bruins will win it all in five games.
(Photo credit: NHL.com)