After a five day break, the NHL is set to resume Monday evening to culminate this incredible postseason with the start of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final between the Western Conference Champion St. Louis Blues and Eastern Conference Champion Boston Bruins. This year’s championship final is being pegged as the rematch nearly 50 years in the making after the teams’ last Cup Finals showdown way back in 1970. It also happens to be the last time St. Louis made it to the Stanley Cup Final. The league only owned 12 clubs back then but there’s a few fun similarities between the then and now.
The 1970 Bruins also finished second overall in the six-team East Division and were led by future Hall of Famers Phil Esposito and John Bucyk. The iconic center and left wing were complimented by a strong right winger in John McKenzie who finished that season second in scoring among forwards on the team.
Bruins fans could draw comparisons to this year’s iconic duo of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand who are complimented by this year’s second-leading team scorer, right-wing David Pastrnak.
That 1970 team was loaded in talent from top-to-bottom, including an outstanding goaltender in future Hall of Famer Gerry Cheevers and the immortal Bobby Orr on the blueline. Orr won the Art Ross Trophy that year as the league’s top scorer with an unbelievable 120 points in 76 games, along with taking home the Hart, Norris and Conn Smythe Trophies.
You’ve no doubt seen this photo throughout your life (and especially a lot this past week) of Orr scoring the overtime Stanley Cup-winning goal where he dove through the air. One of the most memorable moments ever, “The Goal” was even enshrined in legend with a bronze statue of the diving Orr outside TD Garden in 2010 (moved to nearby Portal Park just off the arena’s eastern border in 2016 during construction outside the western entrance). Interesting tidbit – the creator of said statue is Harry Weber, a St. Louis native.
The 1970 Blues were a team with balanced scoring led by their defense and goaltending, allowing the second fewest goals in the league. They were the top squad in the West Division but the only team of the six to finish above .500 and were just sixth overall in the 12-team league.
Of course, it would be unfair to compare rookie Jordan Binnington to future Hall of Famers Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall who led the way in net back then, but the 2019 Blues would not be here without the Calder-nominated rookie’s play between the pipes.
The Bruins would sweep the Blues that year in four straight to win their fourth-ever Stanley Cup at the time, ending the 1970 postseason on a 10-game win streak after also sweeping their semi-final round. As it was back then, Boston is the betting favorite this year as well having won seven straight games, not tasting defeat since Game 3 of the Second Round at Columbus. One could look up-and-down this year’s Bruins roster and also claim it’s loaded with talent against a Blues team with balanced scoring and led by a star goaltender.
Could history repeat itself, or will the city of St. Louis rise up to bring the franchise their first-ever Stanley Cup Championship? Let’s take a look.
[Author’s Note: I wanted to give special thanks to Eric Poole for providing permission to use the beautiful graphic he created of the Blues-Bruins Stanley Cup matchup which you see in the upper right corner. Those who have been to my Twitter page have seen my sweet custom profile pic which he also created for me. You can find more of Eric’s incredible artwork at his Twitter, @Epoole88]
STANLEY CUP FINAL
The Eastern Conference only plays teams from the West twice a year, but both of this season’s meetings between the Blues and Bruins came in the new year after rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington had joined the team. As usual though, the regular season head-to-head meetings don’t give us much to go on and shouldn’t carry much weight when breaking down this matchup.
In the first meeting on January 17, Boston won 5-2 but it was Jake Allen in net for St. Louis who were also without Robert Thomas, Tyler Bozak and Alex Steen, so throw that one out.
The February 23 matchup which the Blues won 2-1 in a shootout is closer to what the teams look like now, although Boston was still without David Pastrnak and the Blues minus David Perron and Brayden Schenn. Both teams were scorching at the time, similar to now, with Boston having extended their overall points streak to 13 games and St. Louis just one game removed from a club-record 11-game winning streak. Binnington and Tuukka Rask were both fantastic in that one and will be key factors again in this Stanley Cup Final.
It’s no fluke we’re looking at the Blues and Bruins as the last two teams standing. This championship matchup features two of the hottest teams over the second half of the season with the Blues recording a 29-9-5 record from the time Binnington took over the crease on January 7, improving the team from dead last in the West at that time to within a whisker of the Central Division title.
The Bruins dealt with several impact injuries early in the season but still managed to stay near the top of the overall standings and started to put it all together down the stretch to finish second in the Atlantic Division, going 25-10-5 from that January 7 date to the end of the regular season. Only the record-setting Tampa Bay Lightning were hotter over the second half than the St. Louis and Boston.
One of the biggest questions entering the Final is how the long layoff will affect these teams, particularly the Bruins who will have had 10 full days off (the Blues will have had five). Rest can be a weapon but both teams will have had ample time for recovery, so is having too much time off a detriment?
Recent NHL history would suggest that’s a possibility with the more rested team entering the Stanley Cup Final having lost the last six years. You’ll have heard (or will hear) that trend at some point but as with any trend it should be looked at closer and broken down. You’ll notice in the chart below the number of days each side has had off entering the Final over those six years.
The average number of days off for the “more rested” team is 4.2 with the “less rested” getting just 2.5 days off between the Conference Championship and the start of the Stanley Cup. With four of the six years having just a one day difference, there likely isn’t much to take from this other than pure coincidence. It also doesn’t pay relevance to the situation presented this year. Boston has 10 days off which is unheard off in the modern era. You have to go all the way back to the 2003 Playoffs to find the last team who had as many days off before the Cup Final when the team known as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim also had 10 full days off after sweeping the Minnesota Wild. They played (and lost) to the New Jersey Devils in a thrilling seven games who had just three days off.
It’s hard to say how the long layoff will affect Boston but it should be noted even though St. Louis enters as the “less rested” team this year, they will have had more days off (five) than all but one of the Finals participants over the last six years. Ultimately, “rest” entering this year’s Stanley Cup shouldn’t be a focal point.
So, what should be? Let’s break down the important areas and see who holds the edge.
The Boston Bruins hold the number one ranked total offense in the 2019 Playoffs at 3.26 Goals Scored Per 60 Minutes but life hasn’t come as easy at 5-on-5. The Bruins rank just sixth at a full goal lower with the rest of the offensive categories just average.
That’s a bit surprising as Boston has seemingly been rolling four scoring lines with contributions throughout the lineup. The top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak have led the way with 30.8% (12 of 39) of the playoff 5-on-5 goals scored but they’ve been quiet at times and needed help. David Krejci has stepped up with four goals and 11 of his 14 points while 5-on-5 to lead the second line.
It’s been trade deadline acquisition Charlie Coyle though centering the third line who has helped created a balanced attack. He has as many 5-on-5 goals as Marchand and Pastrnak (five) and nine of his 12 points in 17 games. His linemate Marcus Johansson, another deadline pick-up, has also been key with eight of his nine points 5-on-5 in just 15 games.
The fourth line has also been incredibly effective chipping in seven goals from the combination of Sean Kuraly, Joakim Nordstrom, Chris Wagner and Noel Acciari. The loss of Wagner to injury for the rest of the playoffs hurts but Acciari has been able to step in without issue and has a shorthanded goal to his credit.
One area Boston could use more production from is Jake DeBrusk. After scoring six goals in 12 playoff games a year ago and 27 in 68 regular season games this year, the sophomore has just three in his 17 games this postseason, with one of those coming on the powerplay.
The Bruins powerplay success has somewhat masked the inefficiencies of their 5-on-5 offense but this is still a dangerous balanced group with scoring over four lines and who are (relatively) healthy, something the Blues haven’t had to deal with yet in this playoff run.
St. Louis has used a punishing forecheck and their strong cycle game of moving the puck around the perimeter to consistently apply pressure and generate offense here in the playoffs. After averaging just 1.7 goals per game 5-on-5 in the first round against Winnipeg and 2.1 per game in round two versus Dallas, the Blues exploded in the Conference Final with 2.7 per game against San Jose.
That jumped them to number one in the postseason for 5-on-5 goal scoring, although their Expected Goals only increased from 2.10 to 2.14 overall. St. Louis took advantage of a worn down Sharks lineup riddled with key injuries, so they may find offense not as easy to come by this series against a Bruins team whose strength is disrupting the cycle.
Leading the way has been top-line winger Jaden Schwartz who has 12 goals this postseason, one more than his entire regular season total and just one off the franchise mark held by Brett Hull in the 1990 playoffs. He’s been the driving force of the offense with 10 of those coming 5-on-5 but it’s been a balanced attack after that. The Blues have no one else near Schwartz’s goal production but do have 10 skaters with 2-4 goals, including Vladimir Tarasenko who awoke last round.
After a quiet opening two rounds with just two points against the Jets and three versus Dallas, Tarasenko recorded points in all six Conference Final games, eight in total with five of those coming 5-on-5. That production will have to continue for the Blues to stay in this series.
Tyler Bozak and Pat Maroon have combined for seven goals at even-strength to lead a strong third line, despite the drop-off from linemate Robert Thomas. The rookie had his coming out party last round against the Stars with four points, including two key assists in Game 7, but was held to just one assist against the Sharks. Thomas has been dealing with an injury and hasn’t been skating between games, so having a few days off could benefit him.
It’s been the emergence of the fourth line though which has also allowed St. Louis to confidently roll four attacking lines. Head coach Craig Berube has so much confidence in Oskar Sundqvist, Ivan Barbashev and Alex Steen, he started the trio in five of the six games against San Jose and they helped set the tone early. They’ve chipped in eight goals 5-on-5 and will again be a key with their relentless forecheck.
So, we have two offenses here with four strong attacking lines and aggressive forechecks. Expect to see a lot of heavy hits from both sides looking to set the tone early. The Blues may own the 5-on-5 playoff goal scoring lead (thanks to preying on San Jose goaltender Martin Jones and a worn down Sharks team) but it’s the Bruins who hold the slight edge everywhere else, at least statistically. The fourth lines will be key for each team again, but it may be the Boston third line with Coyle and Johansson who tip the scales in the Bruins favor. And, of course, the Bruins top line will always be the best one when on the ice. Give Boston the edge in 5-on-5 offense.
The Blues have been known throughout these playoffs for their suffocating defense, but there’s been times where they’ve been hemmed in their own zone for long stretches. It’s been a bend-but-don’t-break mentality and to this point it’s worked.
Alex Pietrangelo has led the way offensively with 13 points but it’s Colton Parayko who has been tasked with shutting down the opposition’s best and he did a phenomenal job against Logan Couture late in the series against San Jose. He’ll have his hands full this round as Boston’s depth scoring will make it difficult to cover everyone.
The third pair of Carl Gunnarsson and Robert Bortuzzo will need to step up and they could really use Vince Dunn back. Dunn hasn’t played since taking a puck in the mouth early in Game 3 last round which was believed to have caused concussion symptoms along with serious damage. He skated with the team on Saturday for the first time since the incident and will travel for Game 1. Saturday’s optional skate saw no contact though and Sunday’s practice saw him skating as an extra, so it’s not expected he’ll be ready early in the series.
The Bruins already faced an elite defense against Carolina last round and a similar-to-the-Blues defense against Columbus in round two, so the challenge presented by St. Louis should be familiar. It’s the Bruins backend though who don’t get enough credit with Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug and an underrated Matt Grzelcyk. A 41-year old Zdeno Chara continues to lose a step but his hulking presence is still effective in other ways and rookie Connor Clifton has held his own on the third pair in place of an injured Kevan Miller. Unfortunately, Miller suffered a recent setback and has officially been shut down for the remainder of the playoffs.
Numbers-wise, Boston gets the 5-on-5 edge across the board but there’s a case to be made for the Blues with the better overall playoff numbers. The Bruins have owned the statistically top-ranked defense all year and even though the numbers have slipped a bit here in the postseason, they’ve still given up the second fewest goals thanks to the play of Tuukka Rask in net.
St. Louis are right behind though with the fourth-fewest 5-on-5 goals allowed and they’ve done an excellent job at suppressing shots. It will be crucial for St. Louis to continue limiting shot attempts which may not be as easy against Boston with their ability to roll four scoring lines.
In the end, these are two outstanding bluelines. With playoff numbers and current form now holding as much importance as the regular season, it’s fair to say the category of defense is close to even.
This category begins and ends with the Boston powerplay which has produced historic numbers to this point. They’ve scored 17 goals in 17 games and connected at a 34% clip (17-for-50). They’ve scored at a rate of 12.78 goals per 60 minutes, comfortably the number one rank. But just how good has the Boston PP been this postseason?
The Tampa Bay Lightning were the top powerplay unit in the regular season, producing a goal 28.24% of the time. They scored at a rate of 10.89 goals per 60, almost a full goal above Boston’s second-ranked 9.95, which is the most productive powerplay since at least the 2006-2007 season (the tracking for this category at NaturalStatTrick.com only goes back to 2007-08). The Lightning’s regular season dominance hasn’t been seen in the modern era – and Boston’s playoff rate of 12.78 eclipses them by nearly two full goals per 60. The only other level of postseason dominance I could find on a historic scale was the 1980-81 New York Islanders who connected 37.8% on their powerplay – the only team in history to score at a higher percent through 17 playoff games.
How hot is the Boston powerplay this postseason? Think center of the sun or center of a nuclear explosion hot. Pure fire. They’ve come at opportune times, as well, often early in games or when the game was close. No garbage time add-ons here and other than Tuukka Rask, the powerplay is the number one reason the Bruins escaped Toronto and are standing here now. And if it continues at this rate, it will be the reason why the world outside of Boston will have to gag again when another parade is scheduled later in June.
So, can the Blues be the team to finally slow it down? Not likely. The St. Louis penalty kill was the top ranked unit over the final 25 games of the regular season, but they allowed a high number of shots and scoring chances, suggesting they had some luck involved and a quality goaltender in Binnington coming up big. Here in the playoffs, those numbers are worse. They’ve bled scoring chances against when a man down and have allowed 8.15 goals per 60, the second-worst rate of any team making it past the first round (only Carolina was worse after already feeling the Bruins’ wrath). It doesn’t help that Binnington has really struggled to stop shots from the High Danger area and if he doesn’t find a way to stand on his head, expect to see multiple Boston powerplay goals again this series.
The one thing in the Blues favor is their penchant for discipline. Staying out of the box has been a huge strength and they’ll need to muster every bit of self-control against the worm known as Marchand and his agitating ways. St. Louis has a playoff-leading +21 penalty differential which is a whooping +15 more than the next team (Boston is 8th at +1).
As you can see in the chart below, the Blues have held a sizable advantage in powerplay time each round, but they’ve still allowed nine goals against. If they don’t find a way to improve this round – or worse, the penalty differential is closer to even – it could be their undoing in the end.
This figures to be a hard-hitting series with plenty of new aggression built by the end of Game 2 or 3, so staying out of the box this round will be St. Louis’ biggest challenge yet.
The key stats in this series may have nothing to do with the Key Stats in the end. Both St. Louis and Boston have been average at generating offense off the rush and shooting from the slot, producing almost even numbers with a slight edge to the Bruins.
Where the difference lies is in the defending of these areas, although to be fair this is still close. The Blues have had trouble early in each series slowing down their opponent’s attack off the rush but have done a remarkable job of tightening things up as each round progressed. Berube and his staff should be credited for their in-series adjustments, but Bruce Cassidy is proving to be a remarkable hockey mind himself and the Bruins have also been successful in the subtle changes they’ve made through each round. The ability to adapt and conquer is a major reason why both these teams have made it this far and will make the tracking of Slot Shots and Rush Scoring Chances fun to watch as this series progresses.
Both the Blues and Bruins wouldn’t be here without the heroics of Jordan Binnington and Tuukka Rask. Binnington, more so with his stellar play in the second half of the regular season, and Rask with his Conn Smythe-worthy performance thus far here in the postseason.
Although Binnington has set a Blues franchise-record for playoff wins in a single season with 12 now, he hasn’t been able to duplicate his Calder-nominated stats from the 32 regular season games he played, sitting in the lower half of playoff goaltenders in the 5-on-5 categories above. He’s also been inconsistent series-to-series, with an excellent middle round against Dallas between two subpar performances against Winnipeg and San Jose, as you can see in the chart below.
One thing we can say has been consistent about the rookie though is much like the team in front of him, Binnington has increased his strength as each series has progressed, particularly the first and third rounds where his overall numbers appear meek. Despite underwhelming numbers early versus Winnipeg and San Jose, he was very Rask-esque later in each series, as you can see in the chart below.
Boston had better get to the rookie early because they may not get much past him if the series runs deep.
One thing which may help the Bruins is their familiarity of Binnington already (this may be a moot point, but I found it interesting and worth sharing). Although they’ve only faced him once in the regular season, Binnington has roots in the organization as he played 28 games with the Providence Bruins farm team in the AHL last season, the team Cassidy was with for eight seasons (3 as an assistant coach and 5 as the head coach) before being promoted to Boston in 2016. You can bet he’s been in the ear of his former staff and current head coach Jay Leach this past week. Binnington has obviously improved a ton just over the past year, but you never know what coaches may pick up on.
In regard to Tuukka Rask, what can you say? The man has been a machine this postseason with out of this world numbers. His 5-on-5 save percentage of .946 ranks him third this postseason but it’s incredibly impressive over the span of 17 games, whereas Curtis McElhinney’s .957 and Mike Smith’s .947 were both produced over just five games each. The next closest with at least 10 games played was Colorado’s Philipp Grubauer with his .932 mark.
As you can note in the first chart above, Rask has also improved each round, only getting stronger as the grind of the playoffs has wore on. His High Danger save percentage, especially, is through the roof exceptional. It’s also crazy that he didn’t allow a single goal from the HD area the entire four games against Carolina (you can note though he did only face 11 HD shots in total that series. Binnington was also perfect in Games 4-6 vs. San Jose where he stopped all 12 HD shots).
About the only concern facing Rask is the long layoff. Whereas I don’t believe the layoff will have a serious effect favoring one team or the other overall, this is the one area where it could be significant. I’m sure even the most die-hard Boston fan would agree that Rask has been playing over his head during this playoff run but a hot streak can be sustained over a short time frame such as the two-month race to the Stanley Cup. Throwing a ten day break into the mix isn’t ideal for a goalie on a true heater.
Will the layoff cool off Tuukka, or will he be able to pick up where he left off? His regular season numbers won’t blow you away and if Rask regresses even a little, the underdog Blues could steal this series.
FINAL WORD: Let me preface this by saying, I really hope I’m wrong in my analysis of this series. Other than Tampa Bay, the Bruins were the one team I didn’t want to see here in the Final for the sake of our Stanley Cup Futures. There was a good chance we’d have a dog from the West make it through and now we have to hope St. Louis can finish the job Toronto and Carolina couldn’t complete.
I don’t believe that will happen though as Boston is just a bit stronger in every area and a lot stronger thanks to their unreal powerplay. This is going to be the most physical team the Blues have played yet and while they can no doubt handle themselves in a slug-it-out tilt, I don’t see them being able to stay out of the box or hold their usual significant edge in penalty differential. And ultimately, the man advantage will likely be the difference again in bringing the Bruins their first championship since 2011. Again, I really hope I’m wrong, or at the very least the Blues are able to get a series lead early. Their best chance should be in Game 1 with both teams coming off the long break and maybe Tuukka Rask looks a bit more human to begin.
When breaking down a matchup like this, one should look at what needs to happen for both sides to win and I feel there’s a lot more concrete answers on the Boston side with a lot of “IF this happens…” for St. Louis.
That being said, we haven’t seen a layoff this long between the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup in the modern era, so there’s going to be a degree of uncertainty around everything. I will say, the longer this series goes, the more I favor St. Louis. If the Bruins don’t finish this in four or five games, they may not finish it at all. The official guess is Boston is the better team and ends it in 5, but if it gets to Game 6, the Blues in 7 could become reality.
SERIES PICK: BOSTON IN 5
SERIES WAGER: NONE (Boston opened in the -165/-170 range for the series price at most shops and was bet down the first few days to the -150/-155 range, but has been brought back up as of Sunday evening to the current -160/-165 number. This is right at where I feel the number should be, so I don’t see any value in grabbing either side to start. As we’ve done throughout these playoffs, we’ll analyze game-to-game and look at opportune spots to jump in at a better number)
FUTURES WAGER: NONE (Obviously the Futures market is now closed with just the one series remaining and any hedging against our current tickets would be just on the series price. It’s going to be a profitable season for all of our Futures, regardless of what happens in the Final, but we do have one Cup Futures ticket still on St. Louis at about 15-1 (+3061 for a half-unit) which could make this an incredible season overall. If somehow a Blues Cup Futures ticket is all you’ve held this season, I’d certainly look at hedging with a bet on Boston pre-series to lock in some profit, but if you’ve been following all my wagers here since the preseason you’ll know we don’t hold a lot of remaining equity. I’ll have an update on where we stand on all of this season’s Futures in the daily report which continues before Game 1 on Monday. For now, we stand pat on the Blues ticket and hope like hell they grab a series lead or at least take a split back to St. Louis at which time we’ll re-assess.)