The Stanley Cup Finals have arrived, beginning in Boston tonight, at 8:00pm EST on NBC Sports.
This year’s matchup will be a rematch of the 1970 Stanley Cup Finals, which was won by the Bruins, but most recognized as the final in which the legendary Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr scored the game-winning goal, and “flew” into the history books (seen in the video below).
(Stanley Cup preview video courtesy of @NHL on Twitter)
— NHL (@NHL) May 26, 2019
Orr’s infamous goal would earn Boston its fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history.
The St. Louis Blues, on the other hand, have not returned to the Stanley Cup Finals since, while Boston raised Lord Stanley’s prize again in 1972 before a long layoff was ended when the Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks in 2011. Boston’s Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and Tuuka Rask (as the backup goaltender) were on that Stanley Cup-winning team eight years ago.
Here’s how the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues arrived to the Finals:
Boston came into the season with playoff expectations once again. Since winning the Cup in 2011, the Bruins have been one of the more consistent playoff teams in the NHL. In their own division, the media focus during the regular season was hardly on the Bruins, as the Tampa Bay Lightning rambled off to a record-setting President’s Trophy season, while the Toronto Maple Leafs were off to such a hot start that when Boston overtook the Leafs for second in the division, all the talk was more about the Leafs’ struggles than the Bruins’ success, despite finishing with the second-best record in the NHL.
For the last few years, the Bruins have been seen as a “one-line team.” The offensive trio of Bergeron, Marchand and David Pastrnak have been considered the best forward line in the NHL, as both an offensive and defensive threat. At the February trade deadline, the Bruins acquired forwards Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, moves which have paid off in spades this post-season. Coyle has posted 12 points in 17 playoff games, while Johansson has nine points in 15 games.
Making the playoffs was no surprise to the Bruins, and the first round saw Toronto and Boston pitted against each other in what now seems like a perennial occurrence. Seven games later, the Bruins were moving on to face the Columbus Blue Jackets, who surprisingly swept Tampa Bay in their first round matchup. After Columbus took two of the first three games, the Bruins won the final three games to see off the Jackets, before moving on to sweep the “Bunch of Jerks” in Carolina.
The Bruins enter the Stanley Cup Final with a dominant 34% conversion rate on the power play during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, having won seven straight games, but their sweep of Carolina means a long layoff of eleven games. Tuuka Rask has been the top goaltender in these playoffs, posting a 12-5 record, 2 shutouts, with a 2.17 goals against average and .942 save percentage.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues started off on a poor 7-8-3 run to start the 2018-19 season. Expectations were much higher considering the offseason acquisition of dynamic two-way center Ryan O’Reilly. The team fired head coach Mike Yeo just before Thanksgiving due to the poor start and having lost four of the team’s last five games under Yeo. Assistant coach Craig Berube would take over as interim head coach, and legendary Hall-of-Fame defenseman Larry Robinson would join Berube as an assistant.
Robinson, a 9-time Stanley Cup winner as a player with the Montreal Canadiens, was with the Blues organization as a consultant, but was a successful NHL head coach and assistant in the past as well (more on Robinson and his effect on the Blues later this week).
On January 3rd, the Blues were last place (yes, 31st out of 31 teams) in the NHL. After Berube took over, the team still struggled for five to six weeks into the New Year.
On January 7th, 25-year old rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington made his first career NHL start, after playing 164 games in the American Hockey League since being drafted in the third round of the 2011 NHL Draft, struggling to make the step up to the NHL and earn a regular spot.
Three months later, the St. Louis Blues found themselves finishing the regular season third in the Central Division, the hottest team in the league since the start of January, and with Binnington (24-5-1, 5 shutouts, 1.89 GAA, .927 SV%), featured the NHL’s hottest goaltender since the turn of the calendar year.
St. Louis disposed of division-rival Winnipeg in the first round, a team many thought would be favorited to make a deeper run in the playoffs this season. However, the Jets stumbled into the post-season, losing the Central Division title to Nashville due to poor performances down the stretch. The Blues then moved on to face another division foe in the Dallas Stars.
The two rivals went the distance in seven games as the Blues peppered Stars’ goaltender Ben Bishop with over 50 shots on goal before St. Louis-native Patrick Maroon scored the series-clinching goal in double overtime. In the Western Conference Finals, the Blues, much like the Bruins in their second round matchup, found themselves down 2-1 in the series to the San Jose Sharks before the Blues rambled off three consecutive victories to close out the Sharks and advance to the Finals.
Both teams have made it this far with contributions from all four forward lines, excellent goaltending and strong defense. The team that maintains those three aspects will win the series.
While much has been made of of the goaltending performances of Rask and Binnington and both teams getting massive contributions from the depth players in their lineup, the aforementioned third aspect, defense, will be the deciding factor, and this is the one I have to give to St. Louis.
Boston captain Zdeno Chara may be the tallest defenseman in the history of the NHL, but he’s on the wrong side of 40 and has been banged up in these playoffs. The supporting cast of defenders around him features a number of players with excellent offensive skill, but Rask has had to stand on his head in multiple games this post-season for a reason.
St. Louis boasts the bigger, tougher, and tighter defensive unit and we have seen multiple games during the post-season in which the defensive positioning and shot blocking, combined with excellent play in the neutral zone and relentless offensive pressure, has resulted in opposing teams going long stretches without recording any shots on goal. Boston will certainly have to break that trend in order to lift the Cup.
Blues win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history in six games.
Play Gloria, St. Louis.