One series remains. One chance for either the Boston Bruins or the St. Louis Blues to walk away with the most difficult trophy to win in North American team sport. But perhaps most importantly, it’s one last opportunity for Will Shanahan to whiff on a series prediction. As usual, a bonus point is awarded for predicting the correct number of games it takes for a team to win the Stanley Cup. Additionally, another bonus point will be awarded for correctly predicting the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy (the MVP of the playoffs). This provision is included only because Nathan Chen wants the opportunity to overtake Telerski. The current standings look like this:
Telerski: 8 correct, 6 incorrect (2 bonus)
Nathan: 7 correct, 7 incorrect (1 bonus)
Roman: 5 correct, 9 incorrect (3 bonus)
Will: 0 correct, 14 incorrect
And now, our predictions:
Telerski – Outside of the TD Garden in Boston stands a statue of a man and an instant in time frozen in metal. Arms outstretched and stick extended, both skates off the ice. For a split second this man could fly. With him the hearts of an entire city and a small collection of states took flight, leaping as one and propelling him through the air. This brief moment of flight has been extended through the years since he leapt in May 1970. In the statue and on the walls of bars and basement family rooms around New England he still has not touched the ground.
The flying man often floats frozen next to a photograph of David punching Goliath in the face with his catchers mitt. But, in the last 15 years, these Davids have transformed into Goliathian symbols in their own right. No more are the flying man and the puncher symbols of hope as the ones who broke the eternal cycles of the breaking of the hearts of Boston sports fans. They have come to stand for the breaking of hearts of other fans. These Boston superheros have been transfigured into villains the rest of the country looks at with scorn. And yet, they persist, on walls and in statues and in the living memory of all of those who saw what they did and remember those brief moments when human beings could fly.
49 years on, the hero who carries the Bruins into the Stanley Cup final is unlike the flying man. He keeps both of his skates firmly planted on the ice and he has long been scorned and ridiculed by his own fans. But more significantly, he stops goals instead of scoring them.
Tuukka Rask is playing out of his mind, and is on a collision course with the Conn Smythe if the Bruins win the series. Through these playoffs he has put up other wordly numbers with a save percentage of .942 while only allowing 1.84 goals per game. The only time in his career his playoff numbers have even gotten close to these was in 2013 when the Bruins lost the cup to the Blackhawks in 6 games. But he is playing better this year, and the outcome is not likely to be the same.
Tuukka has built himself a brick wall, and no one has been able to blow it down. And, he is playing his way into the respect he truly deserves from Boston fans, outperforming the mythical 2011 cup run that Tim Thomas put together (.940 save percentage and 1.98 goals allowed per game). Despite long being one of the best goalies in the league (he commands the highest career save percentage of any active goalie with more than 250 starts and is fourth all time at .9212. For reference, Dominik Hasek is first at .9223) Rask has lived in Thomas’ shadow. Fans saw Thomas as a “battler” because he often made acrobatic saves, when Rask is a far superior technician between the pipes and does not have to dive to make the same saves because he is already is the right position. But he can make those saves too. This series with Carolina saw him stack the pads on at least one occasion to make the save.
Another tact Rask’s detractors often take is that he is not a “big game” goalie. Ever since losing to the Blackhawks he has been accused of failing when the lights are brightest. Whether or not that is true, the past few weeks have proved his haters wrong. He stood tall in Game 6 of the conference quarterfinals in Toronto to keep the Bruins alive, and then followed it up by allowing one goal to close out the series. To close out the last two series over Columbus and Carolina, Rask has had a shutout in the clinching game. Blues goalie Jordan Binnington has gotten a lot of attention for his composure, but Rask has been playing with ice in his veins.
That is not meant to detract from Binnington’s performance. Since being called up in December, he piloted the Blues through their 11 game win streak and from the depths of the league’s standings to where they are now with remarkable play, finishing the regular season with 24 wins in 30 starts allowing 1.89 goals a game and with a .927 save percentage. He has undoubtedly still played well in the playoffs, but his numbers have dipped down to 2.36 goals a game and a .914 save percentage. He has played big when it matters, only letting up two goals in the final three games against the high powered offense of the San Jose Sharks, who were in reality a little less high powered given all of the injuries they faced. At the end of the day, Rask has been the better goalie by far (just look at goals saved above average, where Rask has 13.64 and Binnington -1.36) and that can be hard to overcome.
Of course goaltending is just part of what has gotten the Bruins this far, as they are more than capable of putting pucks at the back of the net. This facet of their game is, to no one’s surprise, being led by the Best Line in Hockey™ of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak. Of the teams 57 goals in these playoffs, this trio accounts for 22 (eight, seven, and seven respectively). And they can shut down opposing scorers too, and have an average plus-7 rating during the postseason. Bergeron in particular (once again a Selke Trophy finalist as one of the best defensive forwards in the game) has put his team in a position to win, shutting down opposing scorers (his Corsi For percentage currently sits at 56.8) and controlling almost 60 percent of faceoffs he steps into.
Much of Bergeron’s damage, and a major contributor in the teams success, has come on the power play. Six of Bergeron’s eight goals have come with a man advantage, but the positive impact special teams has been for this team extend well beyond that. Boston has scored on a huge 34 percent of its power plays and been just as successful on the penalty kill, surviving 86.3 percent of opponent’s power plays without conceding a goal. After Rask’s goaltending, this is what has brought the Bruins to this point, and what could win them the cup. Against Carolina they allowed only one power play goal. St. Louis has only scored on 19.4 percent of their power plays, and only killed off 78 percent. That will not be enough.
Boston’s scoring does not stop at the top or on the power play either. Of the 21 skaters who have played in these playoffs, 19 have hit the back of the net. The depth concerns of the past are long gone. Trade deadline acquisition Marcus Johansson has nine points (3G, 6A), defenseman’s defenseman Matt Grzelcyk has seven (3G, 4A), fourth-line center Sean Kuraly has five (2G, 3A), and so on. This team can score from top to bottom and it can keep pucks out of the net up and down the ice.
On top of all of that, this team has heart and loves playing together. Captain and elder statesman Zdeno Chara has continued to play over 20 minutes a game and been a solid defender, and even when he did not play in game four against the Hurricanes, he suited up for the post game celebration and to lead his team through the handshake line. Former St. Louis Blues captain David Backes has brought a physical presence to the team as a big, mean power-forward. It is plainly obvious that they go out and have fun as a team, and that is fun to watch and yet another reason why the cup will be theirs.
It has been 49 years since Bobby Orr took flight against the St. Louis Blues. 49 cold New England winters have come and gone, the old Boston Garden where he took his famous flight has since been torn down and replaced, and Boston’s teams are not the Davids they once were. I understand people do not want them to win because of that. But everything is going too right for this team, and it has since the start of the season. The Blues might have a narrative behind them, but we all saw how that went for the Hurricanes. The cup is coming back to Boston, the duck boats will roll through the streets, and Tuukka Rask will be the man to thank. History seems likely to repeat itself 49 years on, and perhaps a new instant will be burned into our consciousness and hung up on the wall next to the flying man. Bruins in 6.
Conn Smythe Trophy: Tuukka Rask, G (Boston)
Nathan – Well, looks like I have to pick the non-Boston team to beat Telerski, so go Blues!
At least I will be rooting for my prediction to win. It’s a special thing for a team to experience the thrill of winning a Stanley Cup for the very first time, and I hope St. Louis’ rugged squad will prevail in this series. To do so, they will have to take down a very formidable Boston team which presents a challenge unlike any they’ve faced in the Western Conference. Tied with Calgary for the second-most points in the regular year, Boston has been excellent throughout the season. Their first line is arguably the most dangerous in hockey, and I’m sure Telerski did a wonderful job covering them. However, Boston’s depth is very strong, and their younger prospects have made important contributions throughout the playoffs. I want to highlight rookie defenseman Connor Clifton, who spent the better part of the season in the American Hockey League. He’s provided solid minutes as a third-pairing defenseman, averaging 16:46 of ice time in the Eastern Conference Finals. These minutes are especially valuable in preserving timeless wonder Zdeno Chara, who pays dividends on the power play. Apart from Clifton, Boston’s done well developing their other young talent, including Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, and many others. Thanks to this development, Boston’s scoring depth is among the best in the league.
Speaking of depth, the St. Louis Blues have it in spades. In their six game triumph over Roman’s beloved San Jose Sharks, their fourth line came ready to play. Ivan Barbashev, Oskar Sundqvist, and Alexander Steen combined to score 5 goals over the final 5 games and set the tone with their physical play. For all the talk of how gifted San Jose’s defensemen were offensively, Blues defenders were able to find the back of the net often. 3 defensemen scored goals during the Western Conference Finals, and yet one pairing stood out. The second defensive pairing of Jay Bouwmeester and Colton Parayko has proven to be a shutdown duo, posting a +11 rating throughout the playoffs. Parayko has stood out in these playoffs as well, driving play with his physical style and aggressiveness on both ends of the ice. He’s been an invaluable piece for St. Louis’ power play, which has come alive in the last series. As the point man, he has done a fine job of keeping the puck in play, allowing offensive weapons to capitalize on long stretches of pressure. One such weapon who has come alive is Jaden Schwartz. Following a hat trick in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, Schwartz is up to 12 goals on the playoffs, second behind Logan Couture’s 14. Of course, Schwartz is not their only weapon offensively. Their young players have been key to their turnaround. Slick skaters Vince Dunn, Robert Thomas, and Sammy Blais have provided important contributions for St. Louis, and they have raised their play as the season went on.
Of course, this is a playoff series, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the netminders. From an individual standpoint, Jordan Binnington is still the league’s best story. After being called up from the AHL, all Binnington did was win 24 of 30 starts and post a 1.89 goals allowed average. His stellar play has continued through the playoffs, posting a .914 save percentage through 19 games. In these playoffs, I have noticed that Binnington is the beneficiary of a suffocating defense. As always, St. Louis has an extremely effective defensive structure, and that allows Binnington to take care of business against more routine shots. Such a luxury has not always been afforded to Tuukka Rask these playoffs. The Bruins netminder and Alfie Allen doppelganger has had his finest playoffs yet, posting his highest save percentage (.942) and lowest goals allowed average (1.84) in his career. He has made highly acrobatic saves all playoffs, and he shut the door in Raleigh, conceding just 1 goal in the 2 games Boston played there and recording a shutout in the series-clinching victory. To accomplish such a feat against the vaunted Carolina offense, in a building where the Hurricanes had not lost all playoffs, was a remarkable task, and Rask will likely be equal to the challenge in the Stanley Cup Finals.
In these predictions, I typically go with the better netminder, as I believe goaltending and luck are the two most important factors in winning the Stanley Cup. However, St. Louis’ story is too good to ignore. Left for dead on January 3, the Blues have fought and clawed their way to the Stanley Cup Finals, winning 30 of their final 45 regular-season games and continuing their elevated play in the playoffs. An 11-game winning streak propelled the Blues from late January through February. Much is made about teams getting hot at the right time, and St. Louis is the perfect example of this. Boston represents a significant challenge for St. Louis, but I believe the Blues will win a physical series thanks to their excellent defense and Jaden Schwartz staying hot. St. Louis in 7.
Conn Smythe Trophy: Jaden Schwartz, LW (St. Louis)
Roman – I’m spoiled and I know it. As a Bay Area Sports fan, I have seen six titles in the past nine years, and maybe even a seventh if the NBA Finals goes the way I hope. So, I can never truly feel the pain of, say, Buffalo fans. That being said, my love of the San Jose Sharks knows no bounds and I desperately want to see a title come to San Jose. When that day comes, you can bet I will be there for the parade, but St. Louis put that dream to bed this season on their path to winning the Western Conference. I’m not quite as sad as I thought I would be because there are thousands of St. Louis fans with hopes just like mine, who have dreamed for years to see a Stanley Cup of their own. Standing in the way of their quest for their first Cup is the dangerous Boston Bruins, fresh off romping through the Eastern Conference. My job is to tell you who I think will win this series, which is no easy task. So, I will break this down into seven categories, which is the amount of games I think this series will go, and we will see who emerges victorious.
Let’s start with the top line. All year, I wouldn’t give Telerski the satisfaction of calling Boston’s first line the best in hockey. Those doubts have been erased in these playoffs. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak are the best top line in the NHL and will play a big role in this series. This is no knock on the top line for the Blues of Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, and Vladimir Tarasenko. Schwartz has been a playoff revelation, scoring 12 goals to pace all players still active (*sobs watching Logan Couture highlights). Schenn has been a solid, if unspectacular two-way centerman and Tarasenko has been heating up, with eight goals in his own right, and making up for his quiet first two rounds with eight points in the Western Conference finals. These are players that will get theirs, but the Boston top line is inevitable. All three are in the top eight in goals in these playoffs. They feasted on a Columbus blue line that had wrapped up the Lightning in the first round. Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney will probably never stop having nightmares about this triumvirate. I will never not be amused by Pastrnak’s Dunkin Donuts commercial. On it goes. Boston’s dominance starts up front, and these three should set the tone early for the Bruins. Advantage, Boston.
What about the forwards beyond the top lines? You know, I love Charlie Coyle as much as the next guy, but this has to go to the Blues. I just watched six games of their FOURTH line of Ivan Barbashev, Oskar Sundqvist and Alex Steen blow the doors off the Sharks. The Blues truly don’t have weak spots up and down the lineup. Second line center Ryan O’Reilly scored 77 points in the regular season and has been a stabilizing force in the playoffs. David Perron and Patrick Maroon are heady veterans who provide leadership and strong play on the man advantage. Youngsters Sammy Blais and Robert Thomas have been amazing in these playoffs. Thomas, in particular, terrorized the Sharks in the last round of the playoffs and is blossoming in front of our eyes. And, of course, the Blues fourth line is second to none. Boston’s depth is nothing to sneeze at. Danton Heinen are second and third in playoff +/-, respectively (+/- is, admittedly, a garbage indicator stat but still relevant). Marcus Johansson and David Backes were brought in to produce late in the playoffs, and David Krejci has been here before. However, the fourth line of Joakim Nordstrom, Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner will likely be overrun and teams need to roll four lines deep at this point. Advantage to the Blues.
Listen, I love Jordan Binnington. A lot. I would throw Aaron Dell into a volcano to have had him be a Shark. However, Tuukka Rask has been outright dominant in these playoffs. I know Telerski loves to gush over him, but the numbers deserve repeating. .942 save percentage. 1.84 goals per game. 13.84 saves above average. These numbers are extraordinary. Meanwhile, Binnington has been solid in the playoffs, but has not been the dominant force we saw in the regular season. After watching him closely over 6 games, I think the Blues defense played a rather large role in reducing the amount of high danger saves that Binnington faced. Binnington is beatable and a healthy Boston team, as opposed to the ragged San Jose that he faced by the end of the last series, will test him early and often. Binnington has proven that he can stand up the waves. He held an increasingly desperate Sharks team to two goals over the last three games of the Western Conference finals, all wins. That being said, nothing has slowed Rask down yet and he has earned a win in this category for the Bruins. Advantage, Boston.
Boston’s defense absolutely locked down Carolina in the Eastern Conference Finals, sweeping the Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen led Hurricanes. Zdeno Chara has turned back the clock and the pairing of Chara and Charlie McAvoy has been a vise. Second pairing defender Torey Krug has provided offense, sitting in a tie for second in playoff assists with 11. The Bruins blue line has weathered an injury storm all year, and is finally healthy and proving it this year. Part of the reason that Rask has been so dominant has undoubtedly been due to the players in front of him. However, I think St. Louis holds a slight advantage. The stats bear this out. The Blues lead the Bruins in blocked shots, takeaways and hits. The Blues physicality bore fruit in the Sharks series, as San Jose players began feeling the effects of every hit as the series wound its way to its conclusion. The Blues also only allow 28.4 shots per game, over three shots less than the Bruins have. This has allowed Binnington to not have to handle quite as much work as Rask, which pays dividends. In terms of individuals, Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Joel Edmundson have all been solid. Colton Parayko was a monster in the Sharks series, locking down star Logan Couture after the first two games of the series. The only point Couture registered after game 2 was a goal late in Game 3 that was scored with Parayko off the ice, thanks to repeated icings by Pietrangelo. Look for more of this in the Stanley Cup Finals, and I expect to see similar results. Advantage, Blues.
In terms of coaching, I give so much credit to Blues boss Craig Berube. He turned a team that was lost and rudderless in the regular season into a Stanley Cup contender. No one believed in the Blues, except for Berube, and that faith has paid off. Besides simple motivation, Berube has proven amenable to tactics changes. After the 6-3 drubbing to open the San Jose series, Berube locked his defense up, began to throw Parayko out against the Couture and renovated his power play, to staggering results. Bruce Cassidy has undeniably done a fantastic job with this Bruins team to get them to this point. However, I fully believe both St. Louis and Boston will get punches to the mouth in early against each other. I would put my faith in Berube. Advantage, Blues.
Now, on to something the players can’t really control which his health/rest. I am a firm believer that the adverse effects of long layoffs are complete BS. The amount of pain and injuries that hockey players play through is unbelievable. More rest can only help make a team healthier. Also, bottom line is the this is the Stanley Cup Finals. If that isn’t enough motivation to get your skating legs ready, I’m not sure what is. So, a fully rested and healthy Bruins team easily gets this category. In addition to less rest time, the Blues are still waiting on word if defenseman Vince Dunn will be ready for Game 1. Advantage, Boston.
Here we are. Tied 3 to 3. Just as I expect this series to be after June 9. My final category is narrative. The Bruins were the second most dominant team in the Easter Conference this season and has, for the most part, likeable players. However, come on. It’s a Boston sports team. They are no longer allowed to win things. Meanwhile the Blues have been waiting a loooooong time for this. We should all support a team going for their. First Cup, and you can bet Berube’s boys are going to want to win it for their city. Add in the fact that this team rose from the depths of Hell in January to make it to this point and you have a recipe for a 30 for 30. Admittedly, this last criterion is less about the skills of the players themselves, but in a series as evenly matched as this one, I made it the tiebreaker. Advantage to the Blues. St. Louis in 7.
Conn Smythe Trophy: Jordan Binnington, G (St. Louis)
Will – Last round I made a heart-on-my-sleeve rant that had been stewing for just about all of my 20 years on this planet to preface my picking the upstart Carolina Hurricanes to upset the Bruins. That didn’t quite work out, and neither did my similarly emotional pick of the Sharks in the Western finals because I wanted to see Joe Thornton have a shot at the Cup, especially if it was against his former team, the B’s. I type here a broken man, an inexplicable 0-14 in the playoffs. I need to pick the team that I actually think will bring Lord Stanley’s Cup home. That said, all signs here point to Boston, as much as I hate to admit it.
Bruce Cassidy’s Boston team holds a +24 goal differential for the playoffs, compared to St. Louis’ +9 mark. Couple that with the fact that the Blues actually have a minority expected goals mark (49.7%) through three rounds and it becomes clear: the Bruins have been shoving teams aside, having won seven straight games and looking an absolute juggernaut in the process, while St. Louis has had to scratch, claw, and get a few fortunate bounces of the puck to get to this point. St. Louis has the highest shooting percentage of any of the 16 playoff teams, which will be difficult to sustain against a red-hot Tuukka Rask, while the Bruins hold serious edges in playoff power-play and penalty-kill rates than their Missouri-based foes.
It’s not all bad for the Blues, however. Looking towards our lineups, Vladimir Tarasenko had himself a stunning Western Conference Finals, recording a point in every game after struggling through two playoff rounds. Alex Steen leads an impressive fourth line that should hold the edge over Boston’s grinders. Alex Pietrangelo has been rock solid on the back end while Vince Dunn is playing like much more than a third-pairing D-man, while rookie Jordan Binnington continues his incredibly impressive postseason, even if Rask has even a little more dominant to this point.
My disagreement with Telerski calling Boston’s Big Three the best line in hockey (one 5-on-5 goal vs. Carolina), but it’s hard not to be impressed with the way Pasta, Marchy, and Bergy are playing. David Krejci, Jake Debrusk, and Charlie Coyle are proving to be verifiable depth scoring options while it seems damn near impossible to score on the Bruins’ defense these days. For Christ’s sake, Rask is rocking a .942 save percentage and has saved a mind-numbing 14.2 goals above expected average in the postseason! That ought to wrap up any preview right there. It would pain me to see it, but I feel like Brad Marchand would love nothing more than hoisting the Cup, showing it off for all to see, maybe even jumping into the glass…in the Enterprise Center. Bruins in 6.
Conn Smythe Trophy: Tuukka Rask, G (Boston)