The wait is finally over.
After weeks of chaos and upsets, the Bruins and Blues are the last two teams standing and are offering us a rematch that has been nearly 50 years in the making. While we’ll have to wait for our biggest questions from this series to be answered, we take a crack at figuring out some of the more pressing storylines ahead of the Stanley Cup Final.
At this point, who should win the Conn Smythe?
Jeremy Fuchs: Tuukka Rask. He’s been ridiculously good. Shutouts in his last two clinching games. He allowed just five goals in the Carolina series. And remember, at one point, it seemed like Jaroslav Halak was going to take over the starter’s role. (And he did play 40 games.) Rask has been at least as good, if not better, than he was when the B’s made the Cup in 2013.
Alex Prewitt: Rask is the obvious choice if Boston winds up winning, but Jordan Binnington and Jaden Schwartz each have decent-enough cases on the other side. By locking down San Jose with 75 saves on 77 shots in Games 4–6, the 25-year-old Binnington became the fifth rookie goalie ever—and first in more than three decades—to backstop his team’s first 12 wins in a single postseason. Schwartz, meanwhile, leads these Stanley Cup playoffs in even-strength goals (10) and tops the Blues with 12 overall after a snakebitten regular season.
Dan Falkenheim: Rask is the best player in the world right now and, depending on how the series goes, could even become the fifth goalie to win the Conn Smythe in a losing effort. Binnington has played well, but he hasn’t played to the level of his gaudy regular-season numbers. He’s been beatable. Rask, though, has stopped almost every puck he’s seen and most of what he hasn’t. The Finnish netminder has the stats—a playoff-high save percentage, goals against average and goals saved above average—and shutdown, hope-sucking victories in closeout games against the Leafs, Blue Jackets and Hurricanes.
Eric Single: Rask leads all goalies with a .942 save percentage in the playoffs and single-handedly drained the drama from the Eastern Conference Final. The fact that he’s allowed a total of one goal in the Bruins’ three series closeout games so far is a nice touch, too. He deserves the most credit for Boston getting to this position.
Kristen Nelson: If Boston wins it’ll have to be Rask, but if the Blues can get it done then Schwartz is absolutely a deserving candidate. The winger has been a consistent producer for St. Louis in every round and saves his biggest performances for when they matter most. Plus, he only needs one more goal to tie Brett Hull for most goals (13) in a postseason by a Blues player.
The Bruins will enter Game 1 with 10 days of rest. How long will it take them to shake off the rust?
JF: Should be fine. Rust, I think, is overrated. I don’t think the Hurricanes were rusty, I think the Bruins were just better.
AP: How many milliseconds does it take for a referee to drop the puck?
DF: One period. The Blues thrive on overwhelming teams with fast, relentless starts, but Boston is up to the task. If anything, an onslaught of first-period shots will help Rask step right back into his groove.
ES: One game maximum, but as long as Rask is in the zone, it won’t matter. Ten days is a long time to stay revved up enough to match St. Louis’s physicality right out of the gate, but the Bruins’ key players have been in this type of situation plenty of times before to know how to recover.
KN: Boston’s Big 3 has been guilty of disappearing at certain points during each series and I think that could happen again in Game 1. But I don’t expect them to stay quiet for long.
Jaden Schwartz has already surpassed his 11 regular-season goals in this breakout playoffs of his. Which unlikely hero do you think will step up in the Final?
JF: Brayden Schenn has been awfully quiet, with just seven points in 19 games. He did, however, have a goal in the clinching game against the Sharks, which could get him going. For Boston, Marcus Johansson is a really solid player who could get a bunch of dirty goals.
AP: Patrick Maroon already served the hometown hero role admirably with his double-overtime goal in Game 7 against Dallas, but the winger nicknamed Big Rig is just immovable enough to cause some damage around the crease. Johansson and linemate Charlie Coyle have been dynamite deadline pickups for the Bruins, but center Sean Kuraly is the unsung hero of their bottom-six forwards. If Boston wins the fourth-line battle against St. Louis’ energetic trio (Alexander Steen, Ivan Barbashev and Oskar Sundqvist) look for Kuraly to make a difference.
DF: Has anyone seen Jake DeBrusk? Sure, his stat sheet shows a game-winner and another pair of goals, but DeBrusk hasn’t come close to matching his breakout campaign in last year’s playoffs. That should end in the final. Coach Bruce Cassidy hinted to the Boston Globe that the 27-goal scorer could be more of a factor against the Blues, and an offensive outburst from DeBrusk would elevate the Bruins from great to flat-out unfair. For St. Louis, it’s going to be the 6’6”, 230-pound Colton Parayko. As one of the league’s better defensive defenseman, he will play a crucial part in slowing down Boston’s smaller skilled forwards. And, Rask won’t like warding off Parayko’s booming slap shot.
ES: Nineteen-year-old rookie Robert Thomas has been praised by every analyst at some point these playoffs, yet despite setting up a few crucial St. Louis goals (in addition to several other scoring chances), he only has one goal of his own. This is the round where he finally gets rewarded for that preternatural hockey sense.
KN: Thomas has felt like he’s on the verge of scoring a crucial goal for about two rounds now. The Blues rookie has been making plays all over the ice and it’s just a matter of time before he completely steals the show. Give him the puck, let him score or else forget about it.
Are you sick of “Gloria” yet?
AP: No, but only the Umberto Tozzi original.
DF: Not even close. Now that Laura Branigan has entered the collective NHL conscious, can someone in next year’s playoffs bring an ABBA song back into the spotlight? Then we could have some fun.
ES: Heck no. With all due respect to “Chelsea Dagger” (a great song when your team is not playing the Blackhawks), by playing “Gloria” postgame instead of after every single goal, the Blues have kept their anthem from becoming a tactical assault on neutral ears.
KN: It’s a fine ditty and fortunately I haven’t had it stuck in my head since the first round, but that’s mostly because Matchbox Twenty has replaced it thanks to Rob(ert) Thomas. Perhaps given the Blues’ ridiculous turnaround this season, “How Far We’ve Come” could certainly be an acceptable addition to the playlist.
Who ya got winning this thing?
JF: Boston. Simply a more complete team, and though Binnington has been great, Rask has been on a completely different level.
AP: I’m curious to see how the speed-against-strength battle plays out in Games 1–2, or whether Cassidy aims for the muscle-on-muscle approach against St. Louis’ old-school grinding style from the start. Either way, I think Boston’s defensemen will be responsible enough to handle the Blues’ forecheck, its top-end offensive firepower will be too much for Binnington and Rask will continue standing on his masked head.
DF: The Blues have the beefy-but-skilled blue line required to suppress Boston’s talent up front, and the Bruins’ defense has been susceptible to an aggressive forecheck in the past. Binnington can steal a game. Ryan O’Reilly can help neutralize Boston’s top forwards, Tarasenko is heating up and Schwartz excels at the one thing Rask can’t control—deflections. But … St. Louis needs all of these things to go right and the Bruins have no glaring weaknesses. Boston has been one of the best teams throughout the 2018–19 season and that power play can’t be stopped forever. My heart wants St. Louis to experience its first Stanley Cup parade, but my mind says the Bruins.
ES: I’d be more skeptical of Rask keeping up this incredible run if he wasn’t already a member of the five-man group of netminders who have maintained a save percentage of .940 or better in a single postseason (with a minimum of 12 games played) this decade. Still, something about St. Louis in six feels right. With help from the upsets elsewhere this playoffs, the Bruins haven’t faced top-end offensive talent on the level of the Blues’ heavy hitters since they edged the Maple Leafs in the first round. Maybe Vladimir Tarasenko can spin a few moments of individual brilliance and wrest that Conn Smythe from Rask’s hands.
KN: I think this series is going to be all about the road team and that will play into St. Louis’s favor. Both teams have killed it as visitors these playoffs, but the Blues have been big-bodied bullies and I think the Bruins will finally meet their match when things open up in Boston. St. Louis’s special teams have become rock solid and its penalty kill could finally be the answer to Boston’s lethal power play. The Bruins are no easy opponent, but the Blues’ depth and physicality will get this done.