BOSTON — Torey Krug remembers the moment he figured out what the Boston Bruins had in Sean Kuraly.
It was a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins last season when the rookie fourth-line centre was tasked with an unexpected assignment: No. 87. More surprising, still, was how well it went for the Bruins in those minutes.
“Butch gave them the matchup against Sid and that was kind of an eye-opening experience for them and the rest of our team as well because they did a heck of a job against them,” said Krug. “It was like ‘All right, we have something here.’
“They’ll look anyone in the eye and play with anyone. It’s impressive.”
Fast forward to the biggest game of the Bruins season and Kuraly’s life, which turned on the decision to start giving him and linemates Joakim Nordstrom and Noel Acciari the toughest matchup in place of Patrice Bergeron’s “Perfection Line.”
Few would have expected Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final to play out that way, but Bruce Cassidy’s show of trust didn’t surprise anyone in the Bruins dressing room. This is now considered standard operating procedure around TD Garden, and the “Plan B” solution was needed after Boston fell behind 2-0 because of sloppy defensive zone coverage that allowed Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko to strike inside the opening 21 minutes.
The second goal came when David Pastrnak carelessly sent a drop pass behind his own net to no one in particular and allowed Schenn to feed Tarasenko in the slot.
On the Bruins bench, Cassidy knew he needed to change the flow. He wanted to see the St. Louis Blues top line given a rougher ride, at minimum, and started sending Kuraly’s unit out against Schenn, Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz.
Wouldn’t you know, it worked.
“This is what they do,” Cassidy said after a 4-2 Bruins victory. “They possess pucks. They can skate. They play simple hockey and I think against St. Louis, if you play north, especially for us being off as long as we were, we had to not get drawn into the fancy stuff.”
The expectation wasn’t so much that they’d reverse the scales and start playing offence against the Blues top players, only that they’d make life more difficult on them.
No freebie chances on turnovers. Finished bodychecks at every opportunity.
“Just play them hard and play them honest and make them earn every inch,” said Kuraly. “If they beat us with their skill, which will definitely happen at times, then so be it, but we’re not going to let them beat us with something silly that was a mistake by us.”
It was a bonus that the fourth line wound up creating two goals — the first by defenceman Connor Clifton just 76 seconds after Tarasenko’s 2-0 strike, and then the winner from Kuraly on a determined play in front when Blues goalie Jordan Binnington failed to smother the puck.
This is Bruins hockey.
This is how you win eight straight playoff games, half of the number needed to lift the Stanley Cup all in one intoxicating stretch. Boston is a team that can overwhelm you with the high-end skill and puck possession of Bergeron’s line — arguably the NHL’s best when it’s at its best — but it can also grind out victories with the lunch pail crew when 63-37-88 aren’t able to run opponents through the blender.
“He’s been doing it all year,” Bergeron said of Kuraly. “That’s how you get to this point, by relying on everybody.”
“It was important because I thought our top line maybe was struggling a little bit,” said Krug. “I didn’t get to pay attention too much to that matchup, but obviously they had two goals in the first half of the game and Butch thought it was important to switch the matchup.”
Kuraly is a 26-year-old with 14 goals in 154 regular-season games, but he’s had some big moments in these playoffs. He scored the dagger in Game 7 against Toronto and produced a deflating goal against his hometown Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 4 of the second round
— where Boston’s current winning streak started.
His winner against St. Louis on Monday night was the biggest one yet. He also drew the primary assist on Clifton’s marker.
“Their so-called fourth line got two goals,” said Blues forward David Perron. “They play well.”
It allowed Boston to survive a rusty opening period following the 11-day wait for this series to begin.
Bergeron and Co. have won this team a lot of games, but they can’t do it every single night.
“It wasn’t going our way. It was that simple,” said Cassidy. “I thought Bergie’s line had a tough time finding their game tonight. The other guys were a little bit ahead of them in terms of their puck possession. We’ve used Kuraly’s line all year against good lines and we decided to go that route.
“It worked out for us tonight and we’ll re-evaluate it on Wednesday.”
It’s an easier evaluation to consider when you’re ahead in the series.