“Hey buddy, we’re still here.”
Fuck yeah they are! I apologize if I can’t get Brett Hull’s Western Conference Finals rally cry out of my head. Perhaps it’s the fact he was the one who truly got me into Blues hockey, or it could be the fact that it feels like St. Louis against the world in the NHL playoffs this spring.
Either way you slice the nostalgia, the Blues are facing off against the Boston Bruins tonight in the finale. If this was a long-winded season of an NBC television series, this is where all the story lines converge and find meaning, where one true theme rises above the rest. If this were the final season of Game of Thrones, I’d say the Blues are Tyrion Lannister and the Bruins are ... the dragon. One is unstoppable and the other is immovable. Both are hard to kill, but one must fall during the next two weeks.
June 12 is the scheduled Game 7 in Boston, if it is needed, which I think it will be. I have been on two radio shows via SB Nation (thank you Eytan Shander and Matt Perrault for having me on) and participated in a roundtable with The Score (thanks John Matisz and Conor Ryan), and each time I have been asked for a prediction in this best of seven winner take the Lord Stanley Cup for a vacation and forever live in NHL history. Each time, it has been hard, but I have come to the same conclusion.
Before I tell you what that is, let’s go over a few series pointers. Things to look for.
Special Teams Favors Boston
Make no mistake. The Bruins are deadly on special teams. Their power play has a success rate of 34%, which nearly doubles the Blues mark of 19%. Boston’s penalty kill is also better at 86%, while the Blues kill off the extra man attack 78%. Boston is a high-danger team with an extra man or down a guy, which will make it crucial for the Blues to not take any bad penalties and find rhythm on the power play. In a close series, this deficit could hurt.
The Blues have the upper hand on defense, but it’s not a huge gap
While I don’t think it’s a huge advantage, the Blues do have the edge here. When it comes to Corsi, shots against, scoring chances, and possession, St. Louis’ top pairing of Joel Edmundson and Alex Pietrangelo beats out Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. However, the play of Robert Bortuzzo and Jay Bouwmeester looms large, especially the latter. Also, whether or not Vince Dunn plays will factor in. If Bortuzzo and Edmundson make bone-headed plays, St. Louis in in trouble. If old man Bouwmeester shows up, the Blues are in trouble. A few things need to go the Blues way here.
Tuukka Rask versus Jordan Binnington: Who flinches first?
The Bruins veteran stopper has been elite during the playoffs, posting a goals-against-average of 1.84 and save percentage of 94.2%. Rask has two shutouts and a save percentage of 89% on high danger shots. Binnington’s 91.4% on saves and 2.35 GAA is strong, and he also owns a shutout. Rask’s name already exists on the Stanley Cup, so he knows the terrain, but nothing has made Binnington flinch this postseason. Overall, Boston gets the edge here based on sheer stats and play, both recent and overall, alone.
Ryan O’Reilly versus Patrice Bergeron on the dot
It’s been reported thoroughly that O’Reilly, a 60% face-off winner in the regular season, has struggled during the postseason and may be hurt. Here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter. Everybody is hurt. It’s the eighth month of play for these guys, so everybody is sore. Forget about excuses. Bergeron is a beast on the dot with a 59% win rate, helping Boston put together an overall 53% success rate. O’Reilly’s troubles have kept the Blues below 50%. If this doesn’t change, the possession advantage swings in the Bruins’ direction, which helps their scoring depth take center stage and put enormous pressure on Binnington. O’Reilly needs to be better.
Vladimir Tarasenko versus the Boston defense
While he owns the most postseason shots on the Blues with 64 and has eight goals and five assists in 19 playoff games. However, five of those eight goals are on the power play, so the Blues need Tarasenko to be more effective on even strength play. If you ask certain people, they will tell you the Jets, Stars, and Sharks kept him largely in check, resisting the urge for him to take over a game. That much change in this series, because the Bruins are stacked with playmakers and finishers. The Blues are as well, but they need their best to be at his best. So, instead of waiting on the dot, Tarasenko needs to crash the net and use his presence and keep his feet moving.
Many will tell you the Blues have four great lines that relentlessly pressure a team, and they aren’t wrong. Just don’t forget about the Bruins. During the regular season, the Bruins had four players with 70 points or more and five players with 50 points or more, with the Blues offering three players with 50+ and just one player with 70+. So far in the playoffs, the Blues have seven players with ten or more points, while the Bruins have six. It’s no secret that the Bruins top line is the boogeyman in this series. Dave Pastranak, Brad Marchand, and Bergeron outrank the Blues top line of Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz, and Tarasenko in Corsi, scoring chances, and shots on goal. While the Blues may match the Bruins in depth, they need to slow down that top line. Again, a big “if” to ponder.
X-Factors for Each Team
For the Blues, it’s Schwartz, the owner of many big goals and moments in these playoffs. He has 12 goals during the postseason, outdoing his regular season take and accounting for more than half of his career playoff total. A menace that combines speed, elusiveness, and nimble puck possession, Schwartz can be that secret weapon that derails the Boston Cup train. For the Bruins, it’s David Krejci. He’s not as dominant as he used to be, but the center can still put the puck in the net, win a face-off, and be a core asset. If he steps up his play in the Final, it expands the Boston attack and takes pressure off that top line. Also, keep an eye on Robert Thomas and Dave Pastrnak, a couple young guns looking to make a mark.
Coaching advantage goes to Berube
Both Bruce Cassidy and Craig Berube have amazing comeback stories of their own. Cassidy was part of a trainwreck in Washington and Berube’s head coaching hopes were dashed in Philadelphia. Both found a way back, and have a chance to write the story of their next five to ten years with a Stanley Cup win. Berube started the year as an assistant and Cassidy started it in doubt. Without diving too much into specifics, I think Berube gives St. Louis a coaching edge here. He is more in sync with this team than head coach I have seen in St. Louis, and that includes Ken Hitchcock. He makes changes on the fly, knows how to get the most out of his players, and runs a tight ship.
~The Blues win if Jordan Binnington outplays Tuukka Rask in net.
~The Bruins win if their special teams and face-off advantage continue. Or if Marchand gets under the skin of the Blues.
Prediction: Bruins in 7 games.
Look, it’s hard to be impartial sometimes, especially when you are like me and lived your entire life as a Blues fan. It’d be easy to shout out BLUES GOT THIS, but I have to be objective and honest here. The Bruins are, as site manager Laura said, “solid as fuck!” All around and up and down the lines and special teams. Their goalie is playing like a cyborg, and the Bruins get an advantage at home to start. The Blues will push them to the brink, and won’t go down without a fight. If Marchand is indeed not at 100% and a few trends switch between the teams, it could be the Blues in seven. As it stands, Boston is a beast.
Here’s the thing. I’d love to be wrong. I was wrong about this team and various other things. Being wrong when making a prediction against the team in your city, a team you grew up with and bled for, is not a bad ending. I’ll take it. The Blues have drove up to many signs during the past four months that say, “do not enter, you are worthy,” and plowed through them. It’s that kind of team.
Do it again. If I was betting a mortgage payment on it, I’d place my chips on Boston’s side. The heart, though, will forever be rooting for St. Louis to do the unthinkable.
Thanks for reading and please stock up on bourbon.
*Huge thanks to ESPN’s breakdown of the series.