BOSTON – As ever, the Stanley Cup is as much about stories as it is sports, all those tiny games playing out within the games.
The links between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues may be hard to spot on the surface, yet they stretch far beyond the fact these are two excellent defensive, hard-checking teams worthy of the opportunity before them.
The rivalries and parallels between these squads touch music, history, art, pop culture as well as the men running the bench and those hopping over the boards.
Here are 10 fun storylines, of varying significance, about to play out on ice over the next fortnight.
Ironic win song vs. Iconic ironic win song
Quiet at the trade deadline, the Blues’ smartest mid-season addition was no doubt Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” — a favourite team discovery during a football bar night in Philadelphia that morphed into their signature throwback win song.
Branigan’s 1982 power pop anthem has been given fresh life, to the extent that a local radio station has spun the hit continuously for 24 straight hours following each of St. Louis’s series victories in Rounds 2 and 3, and Branigan’s family has been bombarded with requests for her to perform at a home game.
The platinum-selling singer died from a brain aneurysm in her Long Island home almost 15 years ago.
“Bittersweet part [is] that some fans and such are unaware of Laura’s passing and have been requesting that she come sing ‘Gloria’ at one of their games or the playoffs… so wish she were [here] for that, as I know she’d be thrilled,” wrote Kathy Keto Golik, Branigan’s former manager, on Facebook.
Branigan’s former boyfriend and drummer Tommy Bayiokos, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, is writing a screenplay about her rise to fame.
“One out of every two people do not know that she even passed [after] all these years,” Bayiokos told the Daily News. “Makes perfect sense to me, a winning song, songstress and hockey team.”
On the flip side, the Bruins have one of the longest-standing win songs.
“Dirty Water,” the 1965 side by L.A. garage rock band The Standells, has traditionally blared through Boston speakers after every Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox (since 1997) home victory for years.
The irony here is that none of the Standells had even set foot in Boston when the song was pressed up on 45s. It was written by their producer, Ed Cobb, as a mock paean to the city after he and his girlfriend had been mugged on a bridge over the Charles River during a visit to Beantown. The lyrics also take shots at the Boston Strangler and the early curfew on girls that used to be enforced by some local colleges.
Interim coach vs. Former interim coach
When the Ottawa Senators hired D.J. Smith this week, the rookie bench boss became the 23rd NHL head coach hired since 2017 and a reminder of how difficult it is for an interim coach — in the Sens’ case, Marc Crawford — to shake that tag and seize a more permanent gig.
Both the Blues’ Craig Berube (taking over partway through this season for Mike Yeo) and the Bruins’ Bruce Cassidy (taking the reins in February 2017 for the fired Claude Julien) are interim success stories — showing enough promise as an emergency stretch-run replacement that they’re worthy of a fresh contract.
During Boston’s first three rounds, Cassidy has shrewdly adapted his lineup to adjust to his opponent and knows when to let his veterans run the room themselves.
“Usually you learn from your first experience,” says Cassidy, who waited 13 seasons for his next NHL head-coaching shot since getting fired by Washington in 2003. “It’s a tough business, it’s a results-oriented business, and if you’re not hitting the ground running, ready that first time, that you learn some things so the next time you are completely prepared for all the elements. I think that’s what happened with me, probably happened to a lot of guys in this league, Craig, go right on down the line.”
One only need look at the image of Berube embracing Patrick Maroon in the glory of Round 2’s Game 7 overtime victory over Dallas to know he’s due a nice multi-year contract to stay put after the final.
“Our team identity is our team. We play a team game and nobody’s bigger than the team. That’s really the bottom line,” Berube said Sunday. “We demand a lot from our players and the team has to come first. That’s our identity.”
Nerveless goalie vs. Nerveless goalie
Regardless of which club sips from Stanley in two weeks’ time, the winning goaltender should be a strong Conn Smythe candidate.
Boston’s Tuukka Rask (12-5), the wily vet, and St. Louis’s Jordan Binnington (12-7), the Calder finalist no one saw coming, are putting the lie to the theory that you need two playoff goalies to go all the way in this modern era.
Neither backup has had a chance to doff the ballcap and clipboard with these entrenched No. 1s performing spectacularly.
The fun twist here is that the Bruins organization actually helped groom Binnington, the stone-faced young man who could snuff out their Cup dreams; the prospect appeared in 31 games for the AHL Providence Bruins, on loan, in 2017-18, going 17-9 with a .926 save percentage.
“We didn’t have our own American League affiliate two years ago,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong explained. “We were sharing with Colorado, we were allowed to put one goaltender in San Antonio, we put [Ville] Husso there. And then we basically sent out a memo to all the teams, anyone looking for a goaltender, an experienced goaltender, and Providence and Don Sweeney and John Ferguson gave us a call.”
Blues vs. Bobby’s shadow
All of the players are too young to remember — yes, that includes Zdeno Chara — but the last time the Blues made the final, they also contributed to the statue that will greet them if they walk down Causeway Street and into TD Garden.
That Bobby Orr statue was molded after the most iconic photo in NHL history: the Bruins legend sent airborne milliseconds after scoring the Cup-winning goal against St. Louis in 1970, the last time the Blues made it this far.
I once had the chance to ask Orr about the first time he laid eyes on that Ray Lussier photograph. He remembered exactly where he was.
“In those days, we didn’t stay at home; we stayed at a hotel. We were out in Lynfield, Massachusetts, at the Hilton hotel. My father was staying there also,” Orr says. “I went down for breakfast to meet my dad. In those days it was the Record-American, the newspaper. My dad had one and opened it up. I was in the centre page. That was the first time I saw it. I don’t think I was thinking about how high I was; I just thought, ‘Oh, that’s a different picture.’ ”
Jim vs. Pam
Hockey is about to wedge its nasty way between the greatest sitcom romance since Sam and Diane.
The Office’s Jim and Pam find themselves at strict odds in this final, seeing how actors Jenna Fischer, a proud St. Louis native, and the Boston-born John Krasinski are rooting against each other.
Selke finalist vs. Selke finalist
We could dub the Blues-Bruins the “Selke Series” in light of their top shutdown centres being two of the best in the biz. Ryan O’Reilly is a legitimate threat to capture the trophy, awarded to the game’s best defensive forward, over fellow finalist and four-time-winner Patrice Bergeron.
“They’re similar for sure,” Berube said. “It starts in the face-off circle with both of them. They’re very good face-off guys and play a 200-foot game. They both work extremely hard.
“Bergeron, he’s been here before. Ryan O’Reilly is new to it, but he’s obviously been our best player arguably all year long, and he’s here now. So, it’s a great matchup.”
O’Reilly (229) and Bergeron (217) rank second and third (behind San Jose’s Tomas Hertl) in face-off wins this post-season.
Homecoming king vs. Homecoming king
Each final entry features an adored prodigal son, embraced wholeheartedly by their respective cities.
Charlie Coyle failed to register a point in the 2018 playoffs with Minnesota and had never scored more than three times in six previous trips to the dance. Picked up in a deadline deal by Sweeney, the versatile forward has brought life to the Bruins’ third line, scoring six goals and 12 points already.
Maroon, another big-game third-liner, took a pay cut over the summer as a free agent to sign with his hometown Blues (one year, $1.75 million) and move closer to his son, Anthony. The old-school Maroon has scored thrice, including the Round 2 overtime clincher with Anthony in the stands.
Strongest starters vs. Strongest finishers
St. Louis almost always starts on time, as they say. The Blues have scored in the game’s opening five minutes on six occasions this post-season, winning each one, including three against San Jose in the Western Conference final.
Like Kawhi Leonard, the Bruins tend to peak at closing time. Boston is a pristine 11-0 when leading after two periods in the opening three rounds.
Healthy and coming in hot, neither the Blues or Bruins trailed once over the last three games of the conference finals.
Backes’ new buddies vs. Backes’ former buddies
“It’s now a reality. We’ve got one team to beat,” said Boston veteran David Backes, who captained the Blues until Armstrong opted not to offer him a new contract in the summer of 2016.
He signed with the high-bidding Bruins, and although he’s been in and out of the lineup in these playoffs, Backes says “it’ll be extra sweet” to triumph over his former club.
“On the ice there is no friends; we aren’t friends. It’s just going to be a hard final,” St. Louis sniper Vladimir Tarasenko said.
Backes’ successor as Blues captain, Alex Pietrangelo, fired his pal a text message last week saying he figures their friendship is on hold for a couple weeks.
Backes never responded.
“So I guess it’s already started,” Pietrangelo said.
Armstrong says the two are close friends. “They’re both great men off the ice, great family men,” Armstrong said. “They shared a lot of the same values away from the rink. I think that as David came in, we made him captain when we got there, he grew into it. Thrusting Alex into it too was a team in transition.”
Rest vs. Rust vs. Give it a rest
This is about as healthy a Cup Final as can be hoped for. Not so much a war of attrition as a war of procrastination. Boston’s 11-day layoff between series set a cap-era record for downtime and prompted the club to throw its own charity scrimmage game Saturday. (No one was injured, but imagine the P.R. nightmare if, say, a David Pastrnak shot broke Charlie McAvoy’s hand.)
The Bruins sold out the prime-time shinny event at 20 bucks a pop, and Coyle’s 90-year-old grandmother, Mary Kelly, was spotted in the crowd.
“Guys seemed to be huffing and puffing when they came out,” Rask said. “Once you go 10 days no playing, I think it’s good to get a little action in, get used to that pace. I think that’s what we wanted to accomplish, and it looked good.”
The Blues can’t complain. They were granted six days of R and R. Drop the puck already.
Fun fact: The last time a Cup finalist had 11 days between games, they had also completed a Conference Final sweep on May 16 before playing Game 1 of the Final on May 27. That was the 2003 Ducks, who lost in seven to New Jersey (four days rest) in 2003.
For those debating the merits of a six-day rest versus an 11-day rest, stop.
Since the NHL’s introduction of the Conference Final format in 1982, teams who are granted four or more days off than their foes are just as likely to win as they are to lose the Cup.