St. Louis Blues Double Down on Their Identity to Win Stanley Cup

St-Louis-Blues-Double-Down-on-Their-Identity-to-Win-Stanley-Cup

Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final felt like a tipping point: The St. Louis Blues squandered their best chance to put the seasoned Bruins away, Tuukka Rask was on fire, Boston’s top line finally produced at even strength and the deciding game of this series would take place at TD Garden.

This is when good teams fold…but St. Louis refused to settle for just good.

“Maybe that’s our story. We have to get it done on the road,” Ryan O’Reilly told reporters following Sunday’s contest. With a championship up for grabs again in Game 7, St. Louis fulfilled that vision by defeating the Bruins 4-1 in their own barn. And in typical Blues fashion, they had to crawl off the mat before they could find their stride. The hosts swarmed them in the first period by controlling 68.0% of the shot attempts, 54.5% of the scoring chances and 57.1% of the high-danger bids at 5-on-5. The Bruins were seemingly everywhere and the Blues only fueled their opponents’ flurries with a string of careless turnovers.

Jordan Binnington wasn’t feeling quite as generous, though. Much like he did in the regular season, the rookie stood tall to reverse the tide. Boston continually sliced through St. Louis’ defense to test the goaltender’s nerve in tight — and he wouldn’t budge.

The 25-year-old saved his finest performance for the biggest game of the year, stopping 32 of 33 shots on the night. He was simply unbeatable early on, fighting tooth and nail to drive the Bruins away and prevent second chance opportunities. He also appeared incredibly calm in the process, which restored belief among his teammates as the opening frame wore on. With about three minutes remaining in the period, a couple of forwards joined Binnington’s cause to help the Blues draw first blood.

Sammy Blais steamrolled Noel Acciari along the boards to gain possession and O’Reilly kept the play alive with multiple Bruins breathing down his neck. As the puck moved to the point, the blueliners bought time for traffic to materialize in front of Rask, O’Reilly parked himself in the slot and the veteran center tipped home a Jay Bouwmeester slapper.

While this won’t make any highlight reels, it was an absolute clinic in playoff hockey. Blais and O’Reilly simply wanted the puck more than Boston’s entire defense, and by the end of the sequence, the Bruins’ only touch had come after the goal itself.

That was a recurring theme in Game 7 as well as St. Louis’ whole playoff run: No team seemed as comfortable in decidedly uncomfortable situations. When you start at the bottom of the barrel like the Blues did under Craig Berube, you see the big picture. The prospect of one do-or-die game was never going to faze a team that’s been playing for its life since the beginning of winter.

Instead, it was the Bruins who felt the weight of Game 7’s high stakes. After throwing the kitchen sink at Binnington and having nothing to show for it, they lost their heads and their structure went straight down the gutter. With eight seconds left in the first period, Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo doubled the lead with a nifty backhander. Jaden Schwartz did well to extend the play and Pietrangelo showed wonderful finish, but keep an eye on Brad Marchand:

The star winger displayed a total disregard for defense, first letting Schwartz through and then skating by the eventual goal scorer for a line change. To turn your back on that play and declare “not my problem” in front of your own bench is downright embarrassing.

From that point on, the Blues put forth a virtually flawless road performance. Boston tried and tried to pierce Berube’s defense, but all it could muster was harmless one-and-done shots from the outside. St. Louis’ fortress of sticks and bodies appeared impenetrable. The Blues controlled 54.2% of the scoring opportunities and 70.0% of the high-danger chances over the final two periods because they claimed the slot at both ends of the ice. After all, that’s where games — and titles — are won and lost.

When the Bruins’ fourth line managed to catch St. Louis’ defense off guard, Binnington was still there to shut the door.

Just as his world-class showing emboldened his teammates, Rask’s merely decent outing planted a seed of doubt within Boston’s ranks. He can’t be blamed for any of the four goals he conceded, but he did look human on Wednesday night. That alone was enough to fluster a deep and experienced Bruins squad.

On Brayden Schenn’s 3-0 goal in the third period, Boston completely bungled its coverage. As Vladimir Tarasenko recovered a chip-in, defensemen Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy got crossed up in their assignments, leaving Schenn far too much room to pull the trigger from prime real estate. In the blink of an eye, a harmless play resulted in disaster to seal Boston’s fate.

Time and time again, St. Louis exploited mistakes by clubs that simply could not match its composure over the long haul. When opponents would reach for desperation, Berube’s troops would stick to the details. They embraced the grind and slowly but surely broke their will.

Though the Blues were far from perfect this spring, each bump in the road served as a lesson. There was no quit in their DNA because they had already faced worst-case scenarios. They found a home behind the eight ball. Adversity, momentum, blown opportunities, Game 7s on the road. None of that mattered. There were small battles and the larger war they belonged to. That’s it. All four of their series went at least six games. In Games 5-7 of those matchups, they posted an 8-2 record. They were 10-3 in hostile territory. Their actual goal share (58.3) towered over their expected GF% (49.1). This team lived to defy expectations.

As such, it couldn’t have possibly written a better ending to this story: After sitting at the bottom of the league standings in January, the Blues are now on top of the hockey world.