The Boston Bruins are an imposing team because they have an answer for anything you throw their way. If an opponent wishes to trade chances in wide-open affairs, Bruce Cassidy’s club has the offensive arsenal to keep pace. If an opponent aims to implement tight-checking hockey instead, Boston can hold its own in the dirty areas as well. Frankly, that represents its bread and butter.
Someone should remind the Bruins of that fact.
The St. Louis Blues have won three of the past four contests and hold a 3-2 edge in the Stanley Cup Final because they’ve flipped the script and made the Bruins look entirely one-dimensional.
In Game 4, Craig Berube’s troops deployed a true grind-it-out approach on Boston, leaning heavily on their cycle and three-zone support to minimize the Bruins’ team speed and opportunistic nature. They were forceful, but they never pushed too hard. In Game 5, they faced a more energized Boston squad and thus took a step back to batten down the hatches. While the Bruins controlled the puck for much of the contest (55.2 CF%, 55.3 SCF%, 70.6 HDCF%), they didn’t create many clean looks in tight. Every shot was contested as St. Louis dug its heels in where it counted most.
Granted, another horrible non-call led to David Perron’s late game-winner, but the Blues have managed to adapt to every situation they’ve encountered.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) June 7, 2019
The Bruins’ knack for rolling with the punches isn’t as evident at the moment. When they can feather passes through traffic with their quick-strike offense, they look like world-beaters. The Blues aren’t granting them those opportunities, though. St. Louis has buckled down on the high slot and the seam passes for one-timers, and while Boston knows how to play a blue-collar game, it no longer appears willing to put in the grunt work.
The Bruins seem intent on mounting an attack strictly on their terms. Any time they don’t have a straight path to the net, they start pressing the issue and forcing the kind of hopeless passes that are springing St. Louis on odd-man rushes. The Blues racked up a bushel of glorious bids on Thursday because Boston was cheating for offense.
If not for Tuukka Rask and David Krejci’s heroics in the crease, the 2-1 loss could have been much worse.
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) June 7, 2019
Protecting your house and capitalizing once your opponent makes a mistake. Isn’t that the Bruins’ M.O.? As this series progresses, the Blues are proving their versatility. They can lead the dance or play on their back foot as long as they stick to the basics. Conversely, the Bruins are showing clear signs of stubbornness. They want the goals to come fast and furious like they did in the three previous rounds, and they’re tossing their structure out the window in an effort to uncover that production. But since St. Louis has nullified Boston’s favorite looks and the Bruins aren’t laying down the foundation required to score in other ways, they aren’t scoring much at all lately.
Outside of Marcus Johansson, Torey Krug and Sean Kuraly, the Bruins looked defeated in Game 5. They didn’t want to set up a cycle and slow burn in the offensive zone. When St. Louis put the clamps on them and they had to attempt a shot from distance, it was like they were quitting on a play when they really should have been seeking the chance to extend it. The Blues, for their part, relished every battle. The puck trickled free in Binnington’s crease a few times in the second half of the game and St. Louis consistently got there first.
Berube’s squad flat out wanted it more than Cassidy’s did.
That was never more apparent than in the matchup between Patrice Bergeron’s line and Oskar Sundqvist’s. Banged up as they may be, Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak comprise one of very finest units in hockey. With all due respect, Sundqvist, Ivan Barbashev and Alex Steen are an energy line. Despite the skill gap, the grinders prevailed once again.
In a game where Boston owned 55.2% of the shot attempts, 55.3% of the scoring chances and 70.6% of the high-danger bids for an expected goal share of 61.1% at 5-on-5, its top line posted a 35.7 CF%, 30.0 SCF% and 33.3 HDCF% for a 43.2 xGF%. They were so lousy that Cassidy auditioned Charlie Coyle next to Bergeron and Marchand while moving Pastrnak around to different spots. None of those wrinkles amounted to anything positive because it’s on the stars to play like stars.
They haven’t come close to that standard in the Stanley Cup Final. Through five games, they’ve managed zero even-strength goals and have been forced to chase the action rather than dictate it: 48.6 CF%, 41.2 SCF%, 45.4 HDCF%.
Sure, Sundqvist’s trio and Colton Parayko’s pairing with Jay Bouwmeester have done well to silence the first line…but this isn’t any old first line. They should be able to topple role players on the biggest stage. Hell, just breaking even would be nice at this point. Instead, Sundqvist, Barbashev and Steen have outworked their counterparts and hemmed them in their zone for long stretches.
Naturally, this has led to some frustration. You can see it in their body language when they fail to get the ball rolling, and that attitude has spread through the lineup to exacerbate Boston’s issues. With the Blues constantly breathing down their neck, the Bruins feel pressed for time and are taking shortcuts at both ends of the ice. As opposed to building their push brick by brick, they’re hoping to skip a few steps and succeed nonetheless. That just isn’t going to cut it in the playoffs.
Lost in all the hoopla about poor officiating — and it was indeed awful on Thursday night — is one major surprise: St. Louis is beating Boston at its own game. It’s worn the Bruins out and whittled their attack down to the same ineffective process on repeat.
It’s the Blues who are pouncing on chances and driving play directly to the heart of Boston’s defense.
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) June 7, 2019
On the opening goal of Game 5, Zach Sanford recovered a puck below the goal line and was sandwiched between Charlie McAvoy and Zdeno Chara. Instead of absorbing contact to maintain possession or sending the puck back to the point, he opted for a cheeky through-the-legs pass straight to the slot. Ryan O’Reilly got inside Jake DeBrusk and roofed a backhand for a lightning-fast, Bruins-esque goal on the road.
St. Louis has found its stride because it’s expanded its comfort zone. It’s ready and willing to tweak its style based on its opponent’s. Meanwhile, Boston refuses to adjust. It keeps running into a brick wall because it hasn’t invested the time and energy into weakening it over the long haul. It wants all of the juice without any of the squeeze.
It’s losing more and more of its patience as the series unfolds, and as a result, it’s on the verge of losing a championship.