Boston’s depth, St. Louis’s punishing forecheck and everything else you need to know before the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
When St. Louis and Boston last met in the Stanley Cup Final in 1970, Bobby Orr’s flying, arms-raised overtime goal clinched a Bruins sweep. Boston has won two more and appeared in another eight finals since then, while the Blues have never been back. It’s time for a rematch. This time around, two of the NHL’s best teams since New Year will battle to hoist the Stanley Cup when the puck drops for Game 1 on Monday, May 27 in Boston.
How They Got Here
When lower seeds were busy dismantling regular-season stalwarts, the Bruins emerged as Cinderella killers. Boston ended Canada’s last hope of breaking its Stanley Cup drought in another Game 7 victory against the Maple Leafs, trounced the reinvigorated and retooled Blue Jackets in six games and swept the Hurricanes, ending its enchanting playoff run as the league’s favorite “Bunch of Jerks” in the Eastern Conference Final. The Bruins ended the regular season with the third-best record, overcoming key injuries along the way, and enter the finals with the best goal differential (+24) of any team in the playoffs.
The Blues and 2018 weren’t friends. After the offseason heist of Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis sputtered to a 7-9-3 record, fired Mike Yeo, lost Alex Pietrangelo and Jaden Schwartz to injury and fell to a NHL-worst 34 points on Jan. 2 while Vladimir Tarasenko trade rumors mounted. New Year, new me? Interim coach Craig Berube tightened the team’s defense, ingrained a hard-nosed brand of hockey and installed Jordan Binnington as the starting goaltender. St. Louis had the league’s second-best record the rest of the way. The Blues proceeded to upset the Jets in the first round, rode Patrick Maroon’s Game 7 double overtime goal to the Western Conference Final and trounced the depleted Sharks.
The Bruins enter their matchup against St. Louis with four players ranked in the top 12 for goals. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak are averaging 5.94 goals per 60 minutes, nearly 3.5 goals better than the Blues’ Tarasenko line, but secondary contributions have transformed Boston from a top-heavy contender into an all-around offensive juggernaut. Trade-deadline acquisitions Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle have added equal parts of productivity and versatility to solidify the Bruins third line. And then there’s Joakim Nordstrom and Chris Wagner, who have each scored back-breaking goals from the fourth line.
All of that is mostly without touching Boston’s second line. David Backes shed his healthy scratch status in the Eastern Conference semifinals, iced the Blue Jackets in Game 6 and hasn’t relinquished his spot next to David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk since. Krejci, who has more playoff points than any Bruin not named Ray Bourque or Phil Esposito, has turned in another solid postseason. Oh, and Boston’s power play is converting at a ridiculous 34%. This is as complete of a forward group as any.
The Blues’ offensive identity is built around a physical, relentless forecheck and Schwartz has been its engine. His touch around the net has netted team-high 12 goals, one shy of Brett Hull’s franchise single-postseason record, and stingy play off the puck has put Schwartz in the Conn Smythe conversation. Selke candidate O’Reilly’s unwavering two-way play provides a defensive backbone for St. Louis’s second line, where rookie linemate Sammy Blais has prospered since joining the lineup on May 5.
St. Louis’s depth was on full display in its 5–0 Game 6 drubbing of the Sharks, courtesy of a fourth line that has scored a goal in five consecutive games. The Alexander Steen-Oskar Sundqvist-Ivan Barbashev trio does a bit of everything: they kill penalties, establish the Blues forecheck early and set the tone when Berube gives them the starting nod. They’ve been that good. But, while Maroon does has a couple game-winning goals, the Blues need a bit more from Brayden Schenn to match Boston’s offensive arsenal.
The Bruins’ defense’s biggest strength isn’t the 6’9”, 250-pound Zdeno Chara—it’s the unit’s adaptability regardless of who’s available on a night-to-night basis. Brandon Carlo honed his role as a shutdown defenseman and Matt Grzelcyk developed his defensive play on the penalty kill while Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug and Chara missed a combined 66 games in the regular season. Now, Carlo stifled Artemi Panarin and Sebastian Aho in consecutive series and Grzelcyk has been more than capable of playing in any situation during the playoffs, including a two-goal effort against the Hurricanes.
Boston’s blue line boasts two lockdown pairings with offensive firepower courtesy of Torey Krug and McAvoy. Compared to each of its regular-season averages, the Leafs, Blue Jackets and Hurricanes each scored at least a full goal per game less against the Bruins in the playoffs. That has a lot to do with Tuukka Rask’s stellar play (we’ll get to him next), but it’s a credit to a defensive unit that has grown and improved since the Lightning pummeled Boston in the 2018 playoffs.
Where Boston balances smaller, skillful blueliners with a couple prototypical defensive defensemen, the Blues core is highlighted by a fusion of size (skating at an average 6’3”, 211 pounds) and scoring in their players on the backend. St. Louis was one of only two teams that had three defensemen score at least 10 goals in the regular season. The unit is led by team Pietrangelo, who returned from a month-long absence in December caused by a lower-body injury and finished with 30 points in 47 games to end the year, and another 13 points so far in the postseason.
Colton Parayko had a greater impact on limiting an opponent’s expected goals more than any other defenseman, according to Evolving Hockey, and also possesses a booming slap shot that’d make Al MacInnis smile. The 35-year-old Jay Bouwmeester, alongside Parayko, forms the other half of the Blues shutdown pairing that held Logan Couture scoreless in the final three games of the Western Conference Final. Vince Dunn’s status in uncertain after missing three consecutive games since taking a puck to the face, but St. Louis could use his offensive prowess against the Bruins. Until his return, Joel Edmundson, Robert Bortuzzo and Carl Gunnarsson will round out a d-corps with a physical net-front presence that’ll challenge the Bruins’ talented forwards.
The best player in the 2019 playoffs is named Tuukka Rask. The 32-year-old Finnish goaltender has played at an inhuman level through the first three rounds and he’s only gotten better as June approaches. Rask has baffled shooters with laser-guided positioning and fluid side-to-side movement—leaving almost no space to aim at—and his .942 save percentage, 1.84 goals against average and 13.49 goals saved above average lead all goalies in the postseason, according to Natural Stat Trick. He’s borderline unstoppable and no one has solved him, yet.
All 25-year-old Jordan Binnington has done is steer St. Louis from worst place to an eventual playoff berth, finish the regular season with a 1.89 goals against average and .927 save percentage and become first goaltender in Blues history to record 10 playoff wins in a single postseason. No big deal. Binnington’s ice-cold demeanor has carried over into the postseason, where he has looked a touch more human, and claims a 4–0 record and .949 save percentage in potential closeout and elimination games. If Rask wasn’t on the other side of the ice, St. Louis would gain the advantage from the playoffs’ second-hottest goalie.
Boston wins if…
Rask continues to play at a Conn Smythe level. That’s the easy, Boston-in-six (at most) route to its first Stanley Cup since 2011. Beyond Rask, the Bruins need their secondary scoring to keep producing. Players outside of Boston’s top six forwards have accounted for 45.6% of the team’s goals this postseason, which is almost a 50% increase from last year.
St. Louis wins if…
They limit Boston’s power play. The Blues’ penalty kill was a solid 84.6% against the Sharks—improving by 13 points over the previous round—and they’ll need that to continue against Boston’s top-ranked postseason power play. Additionally, St. Louis needs its third and fourth lines to play as well as they did against San Jose, while its top two lines figure out how to break past the Bruins’ blue line, generate scoring opportunities off smooth zone entries and establish a punishing forecheck.