After all the upsets. After all the craziness. After all those brackets were crumpled and burned and thrown away, we have two of the best four teams from Jan. 1 onwards meeting in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Boston Bruins are no stranger to this place. In 2011 Boston returned to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 21 years and defeated the favourite Vancouver Canucks for their first Cup win since 1972. They returned two years later and lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks. And although the Bruins didn’t make it beyond Round 2 in any of the following five seasons they did win one Presidents’ Trophy and always had the pieces of a contender. With most of the same core that’s been there all along — from Brad Marchand to Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask — Boston is back yet again.
St. Louis’ tale of two seasons lives on after they pulled back from 1-0 and 2-1 series deficits to San Jose in the conference final. You’ve heard this story by now. Last place in the league in early January and trade rumours surrounding just about everybody on the team — including Alex Pietrangelo, Vladimir Tarasenko and Colton Parayko. But the arrival of rookie netminder Jordan Binnington changed everything. As the defence in front of him tightened up and the offence found its groove, no one posted more standings points in 2019 than these Blues. And now, they have a chance to cap it off with the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
The last time these two teams met was in the 1970 Stanley Cup Final, and although it was a lopsided four-game sweep in the Bruins’ favour, you might recall it ended on a historic goal that is immortalized in front of Boston’s home arena. Here’s hoping we get a similarly spectacular moment in 2019.
Regular season 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick (with league rank)
Boston: 53.07 CF% (6th), 55.12 GF% (4th), .931 SV% (3rd), 7.34 SH% (26th), 1.005 PDO (10th)
St. Louis: 51.50 CF% (10th), 53.04 GF% (10th), .921 SV% (12th), 8.1 SH% (14th), 1.002 PDO (13th)
PLAYOFF ADVANCED STATS
5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick (with league rank)
Boston: 50.74 CF% (9th), 58.18 GF% (2nd), .946 SV% (2nd), 7.06 SH% (9th), 1.016 PDO (1st)
St. Louis: 50.86 CF% (7th), 57.75 GF% (3rd), .930 SV% (8th), 8.58 SH% (2nd), 1.016 PDO (1st)
REGULAR SEASON TEAM STATS
Boston: 25.9 PP% (3rd), 79.9 PK% (16th), 257 GF (11th), 212 GA (3rd)
St. Louis: 21.1 PP% (10th), 81.5 PK% (9th), 244 GF (14th), 220 GA (5th)
PLAYOFF TEAM STATS
Boston: 34.0 PP% (1st), 86.3 PK% (4th), 3.35 GF/G (2nd), 1.94 GA/G (1st)
St. Louis: 16.7 PP% (11th), 77.5 PK% (11th), 2.89 GF/G (6th), 2.61 GA/G (6th)
St. Louis: 1-1-0
CONN SMYTHE CANDIDATES
Tuukka Rask: Load management is the new hot phrase in sports these days. The grind of a regular season schedule can take its toll on players and, especially for NHL goalies, being overworked from October to April can lead to an empty gas tank when the stakes are at their highest. One of our Round 1 takeaways was a clear trend in light-workload goalies having post-season success and the two starters left in the final are a good example. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy was mindful of this, so Rask played just 46 games this regular season. Only twice in his career had he started fewer games and been Boston’s playoff starter: In 2010, he posted a .931 post-season save percentage in a Round 2 exit and in 2013 he posted a .929 playoff save percentage on route to a Stanley Cup Final loss.
Now Rask is putting together a playoff run to rival Tim Thomas’s incredible performance in Boston’s 2011 Stanley Cup win. Standing with a 12-5 record, 1.84 goals-against average and .942 save percentage, Rask could eclipse Thomas’s numbers with a strong final (1.98, .940) — and that would make him the Conn Smythe favourite.
But that’s far from a slam dunk. Conventionally, the weighting in Conn Smythe voting is 50 per cent credit for your performance in Rounds 1-3 and the other 50 per cent is tied to what you do in the final series. Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury arrived at the final last season with an even more historic first three rounds that had him chasing the all-time playoff record for save percentage (.950). But once there, Fleury never allowed less than three goals as his Golden Knights were quickly defeated by Washington.
Brad Marchand: Heading into the final as the only player on a better-than-point-per-game pace, it seems the key for Marchand to maintain his composure is to keep accumulating points. His four-game pointless streak earlier in this run culminated in the sucker punch on Columbus’ Scott Harrington that had everyone riled up. Marchand followed that with four points in his next two games and against Carolina in the conference final he put up five points in four games.
Since his first playoff run in 2011 (in which he won the Cup) only seven players have more playoff points that Marchand’s 78: Sidney Crosby (104), Logan Couture (97), Evgeni Malkin (95), Alex Ovechkin (86), Patrick Kane (81), David Krejci (80) and Patrice Bergeron (79). And of players who’ve been involved in more than one playoff series over the past three years, only Leon Draisaitl, Crosby and Blake Wheeler have a better points per game rate than Marchand. A strong final would give him a solid case for post-season MVP and further cement his status as one of the true superstars in the game today (not to mention add fuel to a Hall of Fame case currently under construction).
Heading into the final Marchand is one goal off Boston’s scoring lead and has more primary assists (10) than any other Bruin.
Jordan Binnington: Next to Rask, Binnington’s post-season stats don’t look all that outstanding. His .912 save percentage ranks behind some first-round losers such as Frederik Andersen, Braden Holtby and Mike Smith. Binnington’s 2.44 GAA is solid, though again, not historic or stand-out in any way. Part of the reason for this is the Blues have been the toughest defensive team so far, allowing a playoff-low 27 shots per game. So when Binnington lets a goal in, it shows up in his save percentage a little more than it otherwise may for a heavy-workload netminder.
But take a look at Binnington’s numbers in games where the Blues were either trailing a series or could close one out and suddenly you see his value. In Game 6 of Round 1 against Winnipeg, he faced only 20 shots and stopped 18 of them, but in Round 2 against Dallas, the Blues faced elimination twice and the rookie allowed a combined two goals on 53 shots. In the conference final, San Jose led the series 1-0 and 2-1, but in Games 2 and 4 Binnington came through with a .946 save percentage. In Game 6, he stopped 25 of the 26 shots he faced.
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) May 22, 2019
Jaden Schwartz: It seemed only a matter of time before Schwartz would find his goal scoring touch again. We assumed this would start happening in January. Then February. Then March. By the time the playoffs started, we had reason to believe this would be nothing more than a write-off year for the 26-year-old. But now he’s absolutely in the Conn Smythe discussion.
Schwartz finished the regular season with just 11 goals — the lowest total in a (mostly) healthy season of his career. Three of those came in a March game against Edmonton and he scored in just three games from the trade deadline on. The 183 shots he put on net in 69 games was the best pace of his career, but luck just wasn’t on his side in 2018-19. The only Blue to average more 5-on-5 shots per 60 than Schwartz in the regular season was Vladimir Tarasenko, who overcame his own struggles to finish strong. But Schwartz wrapped up with a shooting percentage of just six, which is about half of his career average.
The turning point for Schwartz came in Game 5 against Winnipeg. He hadn’t scored a playoff goal to that point, but batted a mid-air pass into the net with 15 seconds left in regulation to lift the Blues to a win and 3-2 series advantage. He scored the first three goals of Game 6 as well, then added another four in seven games against Dallas. In the conference final, Schwartz scored the opening goal of a crucial Game 2 win and a hat trick in Game 5. He’s now scored more in these playoffs (12) than he did in the regular season and has six more even strength markers than the next highest-scoring Blue.
Boston: Lots of attention has rightly been put on the likes of Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. The trade deadline pickups of Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle have paid off handsomely, so GM Don Sweeney has received plenty of kudos for making helpful additions. But behind this spotlight, 33-year-old David Krejci is having his best playoff run in six years.
In Boston’s two previous runs to the final in 2011 and 2013 Krejci combined for 49 points in 47 games. In all other playoff seasons he combined for 38 points in 61 games. Having a healthy, productive Krejci has been an underrated X-Factor in past Boston successes.
Krejci was held pointless in the first two games against Toronto, but has found the score sheet in all but two games since. His 1.25 primary assists per 60 minutes trails only Marchand, Pastrnak and Johansson on the Bruins and is ninth among all players who advanced past Round 1. One of the quietest key playoff performers of his time, Krejci leads the Bruins in 5-on-5 points and is just one off the team goal scoring lead in those situations.
St. Louis: When Jay Bouwmeester was drafted third overall in 2002, the thought was one day he’d be a huge part of a Stanley Cup run. But the kind of impact he’s having on these Blues is a whole lot different than what you might have envisioned all those years ago. Now 35 years old, Bouwmeester is one of the feel-good stories of this playoff season. On a recent 31 Thoughts Podcast, Elliotte Friedman noted that it was believed Bouwmeester was about a day away from going on waivers when the Blues were at their lowest, but now he’s a key shutdown player for the team and even earned a one-year contract extension. When the Blues are protecting leads late in the game, Bouwmeester is one of coach Craig Berube’s top options.
With most of his zone starts coming in the defensive end it’s not at all strange that the Blues are outshot when Bouwmeester is on the ice. He’s made some big defensive stops and, had he not got a stick on a Roope Hintz wraparound in the final minute of Game 7, St. Louis wouldn’t have even gotten past the Dallas Stars.
Bouwmeester’s 23:01 of ice time is third on the Blues and he’s only behind partner Colton Parayko in average even strength ice time. It took him until 2013 to experience his first playoff game and 2016 to see his first series win. Among active players only Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have played more games without winning a Stanley Cup than Bouwmeester, but he’s generally not among the rooting interests for “old guys who haven’t yet won a Cup.” Bouwmeester is finally in his first Cup final 17 years after being a top draft pick, and given all the effort he’s put in and pain he’s felt in his career, seeing him lift hockey’s ultimate prize would be a great way to close out 2018-19.
Vince Dunn: Day-to-day (upper body)
Chris Wagner, Out (forearm)
Kevan Millar, Out (lower body)