After more than six weeks of action and three hard-fought rounds that featured 80 total games, one history-making upset, four series sweeps and five Game 7s, the Stanley Cup final is set.
In one corner is a franchise that has become a familiar Western Conference foe in the final, the Boston Bruins. Since disposing of the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the opening round – and after the stunning first-round defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning suffered at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets – Boston has been the odds-on favorite to stand atop the league’s summit. The Bruins haven’t let down those who laid down some smart money on them, either. Boston dispatched Columbus in six games in the second round and then made quick, quick work of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final, downing the fan-favorite ‘Bunch of Jerks’ in four games and punching a ticket to the Stanley Cup final for the third time in a decade.
But standing in the way of the Bruins’ second championship of the post-lockout era is the St. Louis Blues, who took a much different path to their first final appearance in nearly a half-century. In the opening round, the underdog Blues downed a perceived Stanley Cup favorite, the Winnipeg Jets, in six games, thanks in large part to a smothering, suffocating Game 6 masterclass that sealed the series. What followed was a seven game, tooth-and-nail battle against the Dallas Stars, a series won in double-overtime by hometown hero Patrick Maroon, and the run to the final was capped with a six-game defeat of the San Jose Sharks, a pre-season and pre-playoff favorite out of the Pacific Division.
Truly, though, there are few other final matchups that would better represent the best of the best from each conference. From Jan. 1 on through to the end of the regular season, the Blues and Bruins finished second and third, respectively, in points percentage. St. Louis and Boston were powerhouses, winning a combined 58 of 88 games across the back half of the season. Their respective records were such that the Blues climbed from the depths of the Western Conference into a divisional playoff spot and nearly earned home-ice advantage in the opening round, while the Bruins locked up home-ice and finished tied for second in points among all teams in the NHL.
That is all in the past now, however, and what’s left is a battle between two teams that have been among the of the NHL over the past several months. Who will capture the Stanley Cup? Here’s our comprehensive preview of the Stanley Cup final:
The Bruins and Blues enter the series dead-even in offensive production. Boston scored 57 goals through the first three rounds of their playoff run, and St. Louis matched that output goal-for-goal. The difference? The Bruins’ 57 goals came in two fewer games, and their 3.35 goals per game is roughly one-third more per game than the three-goal rate the Blues have scored at entering the final.
That Boston has the statistical advantage entering the series should come as no surprise, however. On paper, the Bruins are undoubtedly more loaded up front, and that starts with one of the best lines in hockey, the trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. Broken up early in the post-season, the line was reunited by the time the second round rolled around and they’ve been back to their old tricks since. Marchand, fresh off a career-best 100-point season, is the Bruins’ highest scorer in these playoffs and leads all remaining players with 18 post-season points, while Pastrnak (15 points) and Bergeron (13 points) have more than carried their weight. The support scorers have done so, as well, with David Krejci (14 points) and deadline acquisitions Charlie Coyle (12 points) and Marcus Johansson (nine points) doing their part to make Bruins GM Don Sweeney look like a genius.
What St. Louis boasts entering the final, however, is the top goal scorer among the two teams. Jaden Schwartz has been white-hot through 19 games this post-season with a pair of hat tricks and a dozen goals to his name. Schwartz isn’t the only weapon, though, and the Bruins should be hoping that Vladimir Tarasenko, who finds himself on a six-game point streak entering the final, begins to slow down at some point soon. Add to it how prolific Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron and, surprisingly, Tyler Bozak have been in these playoffs and the Blues have the ability to go shot-for-shot despite lacking the single-line star power with the Bruins.
No team gets to the final without defensive depth, and both the Bruins and Blues possess a rotation of first-, second- and third-pairing blueliners that can be relied upon.
As one might expect, Boston has leaned hard on Charlie McAvoy, who continues to emerge as a true-blue No. 1 defenseman for the Bruins. McAvoy will be the blueliner who draws most of the tough matchups throughout the final, likely getting a heavy dose of Tarasenko or Schwartz, depending on who Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy sees as the bigger threat. Alongside McAvoy will be ageless wonder Zdeno Chara, who missed Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final. Chara was heard telling Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour that he’ll be good to go in the final, however, and the rest time between rounds was no doubt a positive thing for the 42-year-old.
Most know what McAvoy and Chara will bring. Their prominence in the series will be no surprise. The impact Brandon Carlo makes on the matchup will be worth watching, however. Playing in his first big-league post-season, Carlo’s play has been overlooked and vastly underrated. He’s rangy, a good decision-maker with the puck and is thriving in a shutdown role. He’ll take the secondary matchup and could snuff out some of the Blues’ depth scorers.
Much of the focus on the Blues’ defense corps will begin with Alex Pietrangelo, who has put up big offensive numbers in the post-season. In a sense, Pietrangelo’s contributions to the attack will cancel out what the Bruins are sure to get from Torey Krug, who has a dozen points to his name these playoffs. Unlike Krug, though, Pietrangelo will be logging monster minutes and potentially even see an uptick from the 25:33 he has averaged through the first three rounds of the post-season.
That said, the St. Louis captain won’t have the most difficult defensive assignment in the final. Instead, that responsibility will fall to Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester, who have been the Blues shutdown pairing throughout these playoffs. Parayko and Bouwmeester winning their matchup will be of utmost importance to the Blues.
It’s not a night-and-day scenario, but it’s funny how several weeks can change the perception of a goaltending matchup. Entering the post-season, Jordan Binnington was the rookie stud who had among the best numbers in the NHL, totals that came along with some Vezina Trophy whispers and an eventual Calder Trophy nomination. Tuukka Rask, meanwhile, had been good early in the campaign but cooled off in the back half of the campaign. In fact, despite Boston’s success, Rask posted a mere .911 save percentage over his final 26 appearances of the season.
With the final on the horizon, though, it’s Rask who has the (exceedingly) hot hand while Binnington has been good but not great.
Through 17 games, Rask has mustered a .942 SP and he was incredible in the Eastern Conference final, allowing a mere five goals in the Bruins’ four-game sweep. It comes as no surprise, though, given he’s only gotten better as the post-season has worn on. Since the start of the second round, Rask’s .951 SP is the league’s best. Nothing about beating the Bruins is going to be easy for the Blues, but given the way he’s played of late, it will take a herculean effort for St. Louis to solve Rask with any consistency.
That’s where Binnington comes in, though. We know he can steal games, and he’s done so throughout the back half of the season. So, yes, he’s coming into the final with a far-inferior .914 SP through 19 games this post-season, but Binnington put on display his puck-stopping prowess in the late stages of the Western Conference final. With the Blues’ backs against the wall after a controversial Game 3 loss, Binnington helped St. Louis rattle off three consecutive victories and stopped all but two of the 77 shots he faced in the final three games. His .974 SP over those contests was further proof that the unflappable rookie was built for the big stage. That’s a good thing given at least one of the games in this series seems bound to become a goaltending duel.
In the late stages of the Western Conference final, the Blues’ power play started to come alive, and St. Louis notched at least one tally with the man advantage in each of the final three games of the series. At the same time, the penalty kill fell into a groove, as well. Shorthanded 13 times throughout Round 3, the Blues only allowed two goals against while on the kill. That’s good for an 84.6 percent success rate on the PK.
So, the good news here is that the Blues’ special teams units are clicking entering the final. The bad news, though, is that the Bruins’ have been clipping along at high success rates through the entire post-season and neither Boston’s power play or penalty kill has shown any signs of cooling off.
As they enter the final, the Bruins possess the best power play of any team in the post-season and they’ve scored 17 goals on 50 power play opportunities. That’s a 34 percent success rate, or a goal on one in every three power plays. Deadly. And the penalty kill, while not exactly as good, has been proficient. At 86.3 percent, the Bruins’ PK is operating at a rate nearly 10 percent better than that of the Blues, and Boston allowed only one – yes, just one – goal against on the penalty kill in the Eastern Conference final.
Jan. 17, 2019 – BOS 5, STL 2
Feb. 23, 2019 – STL 2, BOS 1 (SO)
Fan Favorite:St. Louis Blues
THN’s Pick: Boston Bruins in six.
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