Boston Bruins’ Top Line Is Stumbling in Stanley Cup Final

Boston-Bruins-Top-Line-Is-Stumbling-in-Stanley-Cup-Final

The St. Louis Blues don’t care for lightning in a bottle. They prefer a slow burn, a steady grind, a payoff they can only enjoy once their opponent has waved the white flag. They thrive on the long game. Therefore, it’s fitting that they won Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final in overtime after throwing the kitchen sink at the Boston Bruins throughout the evening.

Tuukka Rask was solid between the pipes, but St. Louis’ furious attack got the best of him in the end.

At 5-on-5, the Blues controlled 58.9% of the shot attempts and 61.0% of the scoring chances. More notably, they owned 57.9% of the high-danger bids against a team that had previously ruled the trenches. St. Louis’ puck possession was so dominant that it offset another outing plagued by poor discipline. Craig Berube’s squad provided the Bruins with five more power plays, but its ability to surrender just one goal in those situations was vital because it was otherwise all over Boston all night. Though the Bruins did well to generate a couple of goals and survive St. Louis’ feverish push in regulation, it wasn’t enough to claim a 2-0 advantage in the series.

Bruce Cassidy’s club has relied on its depth through the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final, and the lesser-known names have indeed played far above their heads. Sean Kuraly, Joakim Nordstrom and Noel Acciari have been particularly stellar. They haven’t quite dictated the flow of the game (36.8 CF%), but they’ve rolled up their sleeves and given St. Louis fits in the dirty areas (53.3 SCF%, 70.0 HDCF%).

On Wednesday night, the fourth line once again displayed how quickly Boston can turn a giveaway into a goal. David Perron and Alex Pietrangelo got crossed up on their breakout, and before the Blues could sort out their defensive posture, Kuraly and Nordstrom connected in the slot for a 2-1 marker.

The moment you let your guard down, the Bruins will go straight for the jugular.

However, depth alone won’t take you to the promised land. It’s there to supplement the big guns — not replace them. After all, the pecking order isn’t arbitrary. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak are Boston’s best pieces up front and this trio has carried the club for a few years now. Marchand is a pest extraordinaire who finished fifth in regular season scoring with 100 points. Bergeron is a lock for the Selke Trophy any time he’s healthy. Pastrnak is among the deadliest finishers in the sport. These are the players who can make the greatest difference for the Bruins and they need to shine on the biggest stage.

Through two games against the Blues, Boston’s top line has been…awful.

Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak have combined for two points and zero at even strength. Beyond raw production, they’ve controlled virtually none of the play: 37.5 CF%, 36.4 SCF%, 33.3 HDCF%, 0.0 GF%. Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, their numbers were considerably better: 55.2 CF%, 53.8 SCF%, 52.3 HDCF%, 75.0 GF%. This massive decline in performance can’t be attributed to the team struggling as a whole either. Even though Boston hasn’t played especially well, the first line’s relative metrics are downright horrifying.

Granted, there are injury concerns, but everyone’s banged up in the postseason. Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko left Wednesday night’s contest following an awkward collision. Then he returned and continued to power St. Louis’ offense alongside Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn. For comparison’s sake, the Blues’ leaders up front have been superb in this series: 69.2 CF%, 55.0 SCF%, 55.6 HDCF%, 100.0 GF%.

The two top lines have locked horns on and off in the first couple of games, and Tarasenko, Schwartz and Schenn have skated circles around a Bruins trio that has continually been one step behind the action.

That’s a shocking development for arguably the league’s finest two-way unit. Bergeron hasn’t been the quiet and confident veteran who is always in the perfect spot to disrupt a play or kick-start Boston’s transition. Instead, he’s been forced into uncomfortable positions by St. Louis’ vicious forecheck. Meanwhile, Marchand and Pastrnak have committed an endless string of turnovers. They’re hanging on to the puck for far too long and trying to feather passes into lanes that don’t exist.

Berube has clearly done his homework, as his club is taking away Boston’s high-slot one-timers and cross-ice seam passes. The Bruins’ bottom six has adjusted by attacking from below the goal line, but Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak have kept plugging away with the same old approach. Frustration has set in, and it’s led them to start taking shortcuts from a three-zone perspective.

Near the end of the opening period in Game 2, Schwartz and Tarasenko combined for the game-tying tally on a 2-on-1. The former fired a hard shot on Rask and the latter stuck with the play to tuck home a pivotal goal. Rask and Chara did about as much as you could hope for on the sequence, but keep an eye on Marchand.

As the forward in support at the offensive blue line, he took neither the puck nor the man as Tarasenko blew by him to manufacture an odd-man rush on a nothing play. While St. Louis’ first line had a wonderful outing, this wasn’t an example of its excellence. This was outright laziness by a 31-year-old All-Star who should know better. As Rask and Chara were attempting to hold down the fort, Marchand was gliding back into the frame. There wasn’t an iota of hustle or urgency on display. Once he found himself on the wrong side of the puck, he…stopped trying.

Forget about the lack of production. This is the type of indifference that will lose you a championship.

Over the past few seasons, Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak have emerged as perhaps the single best line in hockey. A trio that not only shuts down stars but generates high-end offense of its own. They routinely outwork, out-think and out-skill their opponents. As it stands, they’re leaning too heavily on their talent and forgetting about the details that allowed it to flourish in the first place.

Boston’s depth has proven to be remarkable lately, but it’s due for a dip at some point. With the series tied 1-1 heading to St. Louis, the Blues are counting down the seconds until that well runs dry.

The Bruins’ most valuable forwards had better find their footing before then.