BOSTON – The St. Louis Blues were underdogs Jan. 3, when they sat last overall in the NHL standings. They were underdogs in Round 1 of the playoffs against the star-studded Winnipeg Jets and in Round 3 against the San Jose Sharks. And now, even though each side carries a “team of destiny” vibe to the Stanley Cup final, the Blues are underdogs again.
Break down the matchup on paper, and it favors the Bruins most ways. Boston had the better regular-season record. Boston has scored more and allowed fewer goals per game in these playoffs. The Bruins have the best power play and one of the best penalty kills in the post-season. As good as goaltender Jordan Binnington has been for St. Louis, the Bruins’ Tuukka Rask has been the 2019 post-season’s best player, not just best goaltender. And, of course, there’s Boston’s clear experience advantage. The Bruins have five members with their names engraved on the 2011 Stanley Cup and six who went to the 2013 final. The Blues’ players have zero Cup rings, and David Perron is their lone player with experience in the final.
“I just believe that our guys that have been there, that have won a Cup, that have lost a Cup, that should give us an edge,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy Sunday at Stanley Cup Media Day when asked to name an advantage he felt his team had in the series. “Some people disagree with that once you’re here, but I believe that gives us an edge. I think that’s helped us a lot this week in the preparation with all the down time, and hopefully going forward that’s an advantage for us.”
Still, the expression “That’s why they play the games” exists for a reason. These wacky playoffs have taught us being a favorite on paper means little. The Blues still have a realistic shot at winning the first Stanley Cup in their 51-season history. What must they do to topple Boston?
BULLY THE BIG, BAD BRUINS…
When asked to assess the Blues' strengths after Saturday’s practice at TD Garden, Cassidy called them the most physical team Boston has faced so far this post-season.
Of the 21 skaters to take a shift for the Blues in the playoffs, 10 are at least 6-foot-2, and 15 are at least 200 pounds. By contrast, the Bruins have six players 6-foot-2 or taller and nine 200-pounders. The brawn advantage is the most crucial edge St. Louis can claim in this series.
“If we have our chance to finish a guy, we’re gonna finish him, but we’re not going out of our way to make hits,” said Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo. "We want the puck. But I think, top to bottom, if a guy has a chance to finish someone, he will.”
The Bruins, especially on defense, know they’ll be targeted. At 6-foot-5 and 212 pounds, Brandon Carlo expects the Blues forwards will try to soften him up. But he’s more concerned with St. Louis’ ability to intimidate the small, skilled Boston defensemen such as his partner Torey Krug. Carlo says he tries to place himself between a forechecker and Krug whenever possible to buy Krug more time for breakouts.
“We’ll keep the mentality of expecting that it's coming, but also expecting to give it back to them is a big key factor for us,” Carlo said. “I think it will be a physical series, but I look forward to that. It feeds a lot of our games. We can all play well in that environment. I think it’s a ‘Bruins Way’ as well. With history we can step it up in that regard. If we do that, our fans will be absolutely buzzing, and everything will be fun from there.”
To Carlo’s point, the Bruins actually average one more hit per game in the playoffs than the Blues do. So even if Boston is smaller, it isn’t afraid to mix it up. That said, if two willing sides smash into each other, the collision favors the bigger guy, and St. Louis has many more of them.
…BUT STAY OUT OF THE BOX
About that physical play. The Blues know they have the ability to muscle pretty much any team, but if they don’t do it the right away and end up in the box too often, the series could be short, as the Bruins sport the best power-play of any team this post-season, sizzling at 34 percent. An equally scary number: the Blues’ below-average penalty kill, sputtering at 78 percent.
“We’ve been watching them throughout the whole playoffs,” said Bortuzzo, who leads the Blues in shorthanded ice time this post-season. “As a group we know that’s a high-end offense with high-end skill. They can beat you in many different ways. Snap something through on the top, or they have a great one-timer on the side with David Pastrnak and the chemistry that Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand have together. So this is a big challenge for our group.”
If you can’t stop the Bruins power play, maybe the best plan is to keep the power plays from existing. The Blues believe they play on the right side of the line. How?
“Well first, play between the whistles for sure,” said Blues coach Craig Berube. “We’ve done a good job of that in the playoffs so far. We’ve been really good with our discipline after the whistle, staying out of the stuff. Yeah, we’re a physical team. We’re gonna take the body, and that’s the way we play. You’ve got to keep it clean when you do take the body, but it’s not just about running around hitting people. We get the puck. That’s the object.”
Backing up Berube’s sentiments: of all 16 teams in the 2018-19 playoff field, the Blues average the fewest penalty minutes per game.
CATCH BOSTON NAPPING IN GAME 1
The Bruins’ sleepiest game of the post-season came at TD Garden in Game 1 of the first round against the underdog Toronto Maple Leafs. Following an 11-day layoff after sweeping Carolina, is there any risk of Boston feeling the rust and coming out flat on home ice, re-enacting that sluggish Game 1 against Toronto? Is there a such thing as too much time off?
“I can’t stand when we have more than two days off between games,” said Bruins defenseman Torey Krug. “Because that’s when your body starts to feel the aches and the pains. When you’re in it every other day, you can just ignore it. You can get a great warmup in and go right back to work.”
If there’s an “upset” game in the final that’s there for St. Louis to seize, it’s Game 1. Maybe the Bruins feed off the crowd adrenaline in the first five minutes, but there’s still a possibility of Jell-O legs as the game progresses. Then again, it’s not like the Blues played last night. As Bruins center Sean Kuraly points out, St. Louis will have sat for six days.
BASK IN THE LACK OF PRESSURE
The Bruins have far more experience than the Blues. But with greater experience can come increased pressure. The Bruins are expected to win this series, whereas the Blues continue to thrive on borrowed time, having fought back from 31st overall in the standings. As left winger Brayden Schenn and center Tyler Bozak pointed out Sunday, it was a matter of a team that made many off-season changes needing time to gel and adjust to new roles. They clicked, and they’ve flourished since early winter while unburdened by expectations. So maybe they can spin that as a backwards version of a mental edge. Or they can choose to value the non-Stanley Cup experiences from which they’ve learned.
“We’ve played in every big event possible,” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo. “Most of us have played in a championship game, Memorial Cup, Olympics, World Cup, whatever it is. We’ve made it to the conference final before. We’ve made it here for a reason. We’ve earned the right to be here. It hasn’t been an easy road for us to get here. We’ve faced some adversity. We’ve been down in some series. We haven’t played well in some series. We keep finding a way to win, and we gain experience from that."
BREAK EVEN IN THE GOALTENDING BATTLE
Rask is playing the best hockey of his career, leading the Conn Smythe Trophy race, boasting a league-best .942 save percentage. Sensational rookie netminder Jordan Binnington is the primary reason St. Louis made the playoffs, and he’s been good enough to keep his team in most games this post-season, but it’s difficult not to give the crease advantage to Boston right now.
Still, there’s a path to beating Rask. He’s faced a tougher workload than Binnington. Rask has been blitzed with 30 or more shots in 70.6 percent of his games this post-season compared to 42.1 percent for Binnington. The Bruins allow more pucks to reach their goalie than the Blues do. The Bruins, though, allow fewer high-danger chances than the Blues, so the key to finding holes in Rask’s armor is to generate better shot quality. That or, uh, make sure Rask can’t see what’s coming at him.
“It’s the same mentality we’ve had in every series,” said Bozak, who, as a former Maple Leaf and Atlantic Division dweller, has more experience against Rask than any other Blue does. “We’ve faced a lot of good goalies. Just try and get traffic, take away their eyes, get as many pucks to the net as we can. You never know what’s going to happen in these situations, so you just want to get pucks to the net and hope for the best.”
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