By: Max Mainville | Check me out on Twitter @tkdmaxbjj
How are your nerves? Are your fingernails still intact? No? That’s alright, it’s normal – expected at this time of year. Tonight, the Boston Bruins will meet the St. Louis Blues for the final game of the 2018-19 NHL season with a chance to win the Stanley Cup on home ice while the Blues look to lock in their first ever Stanley Cup in their 52-year history.
Before the best-of-seven series began, it was well noted that these two franchises were near exact mirror images of one another. Great goaltending, solid players on the blueline and a forward core that brought a combination of toughness, hitting and goal scoring throughout all four lines. Many people, including myself, felt that this series was destined to go the distance and as we found out on Sunday, it sure will.
In Sunday’s Game Six in St. Louis, Missouri, Boston took a huge 5-1 win on the road to force this seventh game. Tuukka Rask was beyond stellar in net for the Bruins while third period goals from Brandon Carlo, Karson Kuhlman and David Pastrnak sealed the deal before Zdeno Chara’s empty-net goal. The Bruins managed to quiet the roaring St. Louis crowd once again and made the series a true toss-up again.
Following Game Five, the Bruins had lost their second-consecutive game in the series and due to the fact that it was heading back to the Blues home arena, it seemed like the momentum was in St. Louis’ favor. Now, once again, there is no real momentum nor favorite to win Game Seven in TD Garden.
The entire series so far has been fascinating to watch. Boston overcame a two-goal deficit to win Game One only for the Blues to take an overtime win in Game Two. The B’s exploded back when the series debuted in the Enterprise Arena with a crushing 7-2 victory only for the Blues to win both Game Four and Five to take a 3-2 series lead. After the Game Six performance where the top-six of Boston finally woke up and played at the level that we are used to seeing while Rask continued to be elite – a reoccurring theme in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
All across the spectrum, the Bruins and Blues have an equally strong chance to hoist the Stanley Cup on Wednesday night in Boston. Neither team has let set downs hold them down long-term. As we know, the Blues were once dead-last in the National Hockey League on January 2nd and look where they are now. So, for the Boston Bruins, what needs to happen during the three periods (and maybe more) in order to win Stanley Cup number seven?
1. Tuukka. Rask.
As previously mentioned, Tuukka Rask has been one of the sole reasons for being Eastern Conference Champions and having three wins in the Finals as of this point. Going way back to the first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Rask was key in numerous wins including a dominate Game 7 performance, stopping 32 of the 33 shots he faced to send Boston to the second round.
Against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, Rask finished the six-game series with a .948 save percentage and a 1.83 goals-against-average, closing out the series with a phenomenal 39-save shutout in Game Six. That dominance continued in the Conference Finals over the Carolina Hurricanes, allowing only five goals in four games with another shutout in the final elimination game.
In every game during the Stanley Cup Finals, Rask has allowed over one goal but no more than three goals except for Sunday’s win where he allowed only one goal against on 29 shots. Tuukka was by far Boston’s best penalty-killer in Game Six and crushed the momentum for the Blues. Rask is now 3-0 in elimination games in the 2019 postseason with a 1.34 GAA and .953 save percentage.
St. Louis has had great success with their forecheck against Boston’s defense and that is likely to continue, but if Tuukka Rask can be as dominate as ever, he will be the biggest factor to a Bruins win if it does happen and they need him to perform at that extreme level.
2. Shut Down The Neutral Zone
Part of the reason for the success in the 5-1 win three days ago was the strength in the neutral zone. The Bruins did an excellent job at making the Blues offense work hard for their zone entries and make it a difficult task to dump the puck in deep. Boston’s second line of Jake DeBrusk, Karson Kuhlman and David Krejci did a particularly good job at that while the defensive pairings managed to retrieve the loose pucks on the dump-ins.
Boston’s third goal of the game came from Kuhlman, but was created off of a neutral zone turnover by St. Louis. For the majority of the game, the Boston players were quite aggressive on pucks and gave the Blues very little room to work. This was evident on this goal as DeBrusk goes after his man who turns it over to David Krejci. Krejci quickly brings it into the zone and feeds Kuhlman who snipes one far-side.
Boston cannot back down when the Blues go for their zone exits and rushes up the ice. St. Louis has big forwards such as leading scorer Ryan O’Reilly who can blast down the ice and get hard drives to the net that create scoring opportunities. Limiting the space that St. Louis has to exit the zone will force more mistakes and allow Boston to pounce on the resulting chances.
However, Boston cannot make mistakes of their own while doing this. If a player misses a check and gets them self out of position, then the Blues could have an odd-man rush going the other way. Calm, but tenacious hockey in the neutral zone is what will win this for Boston.
3. Win The Smaller Battles & Trust Leaders
Once again, the Bruins found the success that they did in Game Six because of the smaller plays. It was not until the third period where Boston scored goals two, three, four, and five. From the 8:40 mark of the first period to just over two minutes into the third, Boston managed to maintain a one-goal advantage on the scoreboard. That was in part, due to the victory of smaller battles throughout the entirety of the game.
As showed above, Boston did a much better job controlling the neutral zone to adequately shut down the chances St. Louis had coming down the ice. Also, Boston did a solid job winning the battles along the boards, in both the offensive and defensive zones and that allowed the Bruins to score goals and also keep the Blues to the outside and forced them to take point shots that were either blocked, intercepted, or stopped by Rask in between the pipes.
On David Pastrnak’s goal that gave the Bruins a 4-1 lead in the third, forward Sean Kuraly used that same concept to drive into the zone, pressure the St. Louis defence, make a clean pass to Marchand who made an equally impressive feed to an open Pastrnak to beat Binnington. The rest of the players in the blue jerseys were unable to come back and defend the play because they were expected a pass up the ice and because they were finishing up a change. The tenacious effort on pucks will be crucial for Boston to claim victory.
In addition to that, the 2018-19 Boston Bruins are much different from the 2010-11 Bruins that won the Stanley Cup. The 2011 Bruins were filled to the rim with veterans of the game who had the experience to guide them to the championship. This time around, a lot of the key players – David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk, Karson Kuhlman, Jake DeBrusk, etc. – are leading the team. However, they will need to listen to the guidance and expertise of Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci and Brad Marchand who have been there before and have won before. Every piece of advice and knowledge may be the ultimate difference maker.
Regardless of the outcome, at the end of the day, very few individuals in the hockey community expected the Boston Bruins to be one win away from the Stanley Cup this season. The same could be said for the St. Louis Blues as well. After all, the Tampa Bay Lightning were by far the best team in the regular season and they were swept early. When the final buzzer rings tonight, the winner will be the 2019 Stanley Cup Champions. The only question remains – will it be the Bruins or Blues hoisting the Stanley Cup above their heads?