BOSTON — Eighteen months before blowing the roof off TD Garden with the biggest goal of his career, Sean Kuraly was thrown into the fire against the best player in hockey. It was an otherwise ordinary regular season matchup in November 2017 when Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy decided to test how Kuraly, then a rookie still acclimating to his role as the team’s fourth-line center, would handle the colossal task of marking none other than Sidney Crosby.
The result was a revelation.
“They did a heck of a job against them,” Boston defenseman Torey Krug says. “It was like, ‘Alright, we have something here.’”
Though he hails from suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, the 26-year-old Kuraly is better defined as a Swiss Army knife on skates. Detailed in the defensive zone yet immovable with the puck below the opposite goal line, he was the author of another eye-opening performance in Boston’s 4–2 win on Monday night, clinching Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final with a goal, a primary assist and 7:15 of even-strength time against St. Louis’ firepowered top trio.
Surely the credit deserves to be spread around, from the stingy team defense that allowed only three shots in the second period, to blueliner Connor Clifton’s timely neutral-zone takeaway that ultimately set up Kuraly’s winning tally in the third frame, to the bone-rattling hit levied by Krug on Blues forward David Perron shortly thereafter, which sparked a round of “We want the Cup!” chants from the Boston crowd. But the spotlight belonged to Kuraly, just nine weeks removed from hand surgery, and his 27-year-old workmanlike wingers, Noel Acciari and Joakim Nordstrom.
“They always answer the bell,” Krug says. “They don’t care who’s playing across from them …They’ll look anyone in the eye, and play anyone. It’s impressive."
Depth can define a postseason, or at least chart its end course. Think about the beautifully nicknamed HBK Line during Pittsburgh’s championship run in ‘16–17, or Capitals winger Devante Smith-Pelly doing his best Bobby Orr impression while clinching their title against Vegas last spring. The edge here was supposedly given to St. Louis before the series, so dangerous had its bottom-six trios anchored by Tyler Bozak and Oskar Sundqvist been.
Instead it was Clifton, a 24-year-old rookie only recently inserted onto the third pair during the first round against Toronto, crashing the net and earning a fortunate bounce to put Boston on the board. It was Acciari winning a battle in front of the St. Louis net and whipping the puck to the weak side, where Kuraly scored and then celebrated with a double-fisted pounding of the glass like Donkey Kong. “This is what they do,” Cassidy says. “They play simple hockey.”
And it was the earlier call by Cassidy, reacting to seeing star center Patrice Bergeron and company burned twice as St. Louis took a 2–0 lead, to switch the matchups by asking Kuraly to handle Blues forwards Brayden Schenn, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz. “We know what our job is when we’re out against a line like that,” Kuraly says. “It’s to make it difficult for them to create any offense … If they beat us with their skill, which will definitely happen at times, so be it. But we’re not going to let them beat us with something silly.”
The same could hardly be said of the Blues, who were whistled for five minor penalties despite facing the postseason’s top-ranked power play. The Bruins wound up converting only once when defenseman Charlie McAvoy’s snapshot clipped St. Louis captain Alex Pietrangelo’s stick and zipped under goalie Jordan Binnington’s glove, tying the game at two apiece. Even so, it was a tightrope walk upon which the Western Conference champions were bound to stumble.
“It takes a lot of guys out of the game and that burns up a lot of energy from other guys that are killing all the time,” coach Craig Berube lamented. “It’s too much … We’ve got to be more disciplined.”
This Memorial Day marked the shotgun start of the 80th best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final. In the previous 79 series, the team that captured Game 1 ultimately took home the trophy 61 times (77.2%). Plenty of hockey remains for the Blues to reverse their fortunes, beginning with Game 2 on Wednesday night. But given the wasted opportunities in the opener—a sluggish start from an opponent coming off 10 days’ rest; a multi-goal lead on the road; an unremarkable outing by Bergeron and wingers Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak —a 2–0 deficit might seem damn near insurmountable, even for the first NHL team ever to reach the championship round after sitting in dead-last after New Years’ Day.
Or, put another way, the Bruins may have something here.