The Stanley Cup Final is set, with the Boston Bruins strutting their way in through a four-game sweep over the Carolina Hurricanes, and the St. Louis Blues rallying around a missed hand pass, after which they completely dominated the San Jose Sharks to earn their first trip to the final since 1970.
Like we’ve done for the previous rounds, let’s see how the flow of play went for the Bruins and Blues in their respective conference final series.
Strangely enough, the Bruins and the Blues advanced in very similar manners. Both teams lost the overall Corsi battle at both 5-on-5 and in all situations, but heavily dominated shot quality, at least in terms of location.
The Bruins’ power play has been absolutely lethal in these playoffs, clicking on 34 per cent of their opportunities and accounting for just under 30 per cent of their goals. But in the conference final they were actually better at 5-on-5 than they were on special teams — the Hurricanes were seemingly just cursed whenever it wasn’t five-a-side hockey.
At even strength, the Bruins were content to let the Hurricanes control the puck most of the game (though not to an extreme amount). But they did a great job of protecting the front of their own net and at the other end, they absolutely bombarded Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney with quality chances when they had their own offensive possessions.
The Bruins weren’t just positionally sound and excellent at getting dangerous shots on net, they also controlled passes into the slot at an extreme rate in the series, both defensively by blocking those pass attempts by the Hurricanes and offensively by finding ways to beat the Canes’ defensive schemes and find their forwards in the middle of the ice.
Of the total passes each team attempted in the offensive zone in the conference final, none was even close to the Bruins in how often they tended to go for the slot. They also boasted the highest success rate on those passes by a wide margin.
Surprisingly, the Hurricanes were able to out-cycle the Bruins pretty significantly and were more dangerous off the rush at 5-on-5, but neither area translated for them and the rush chance differential reversed when you include all situations.
The Bruins’ extreme focus on passes into the slot and generating high danger chances also allowed them to get seven one-timers from the inner slot or high danger area in just four games. That’s a rare occurrence and has an extremely high expected conversion rate — this was a key to their quick strike offence.
Interestingly, the other team that was really good at creating one timers from the high danger area in the conference final was St. Louis. And while they didn’t exhibit the pass control the Bruins did, they made the most of those chances with a bevy of aggressive, net crashing shooters.
Like the Bruins, the Blues were outworked off the cycle in their previous series, and at even strength they were outplayed in terms of dangerous passes as well. But contrary to what we saw in Round 2 and what they did in the regular season, St. Louis outplayed the Sharks off the rush.
That’s an interesting thing for the Blues because they’ve struggled to defend the rush most of the year and the Sharks were a dangerous team in that area. St. Louis saw themselves being beat on the cycle, struggling to generate the chances they were used to, and adapted. It’s yet another sign of resilience for a team that has personified the word this season.
When we analyze teams using data usually the goal is to cut through some of the clichés of ‘who wanted it more?’ or how much a team believes in themselves, or has bought into what the coaching staff is selling. But sometimes you can tease out little hints from the statistics that show how much a team is willing to change on the fly, attack in different and creative ways, and be effective while doing so. Those are the kinds of things I think of when someone says the players have bought in — and the Blues certainly have.
BUY OR SELL
• The two players who led the league in 5-on-5 scoring chances in the playoffs won’t be playing in the final: Timo Meier was miles ahead of everyone with 63, Tomas Hertl was next with 48. Meier also led the league in high danger chances with 21. The Sharks might be heading into a transition phase, but the younger players they have are pretty incredible.
• The top three players in completed passes to the slot are also not playing in the final, and shockingly two of them are defencemen. Erik Karlsson (27), Logan Couture (25), and Brent Burns (24) completed the most, which might have been a bit of the issue for San Jose. Passes from up high to down low aren’t often as dangerous as cross-ice passes. The top even strength slot passer in the final? David Krejci with 21.
• The main area the Blues are going to have to key on to beat the Bruins will be shutting things down right in front of Jordan Binnington. Twenty-one of Boston’s 32 goals at 5-on-5 in the playoffs came from the high danger area, and in all situations it’s 31 of 57. They heavily rely on getting in tight, with 54 per cent of their goals coming from there. The Blues meanwhile, have scored just 44 per cent of their goals from the inner slot, demonstrating a bit more shooting ability from further out.
• Tuukka Rask leads the playoffs in inner slot save percentage at 87.9 per cent, nearly 10 per cent above expectations, which really floated the Bruins early in the playoffs when they weren’t their usual stalwart defensive selves. But now they’re playing like they usually do, and Rask hasn’t cooled down. That’s downright scary.
• Binnington by contrast has been exactly average from the inner slot, stopping 78.1 per cent of the high danger chances he faces, which is another reason why the Blues will want to focus on defending the inner slot to the extreme. They’re at a 10 per cent disadvantage in save percentage there. Can they hold off the Bruins’ aggressive forwards enough? It should be interesting to watch.