St. Louis Blues Find Balance in Seesaw Stanley Cup Final

St.-Louis-Blues-Find-Balance-in-Seesaw-Stanley-Cup-Final

The St. Louis Blues learned their lesson. After losing sight of the big picture in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, they tempered their emotions to unleash the most effective and suffocating version of their forecheck in Game 4. They were still doling out hits left and right, but they no longer chased them without regard for the actual outcome. Each display of aggressiveness came within the confines of Craig Berube’s system. Each high-impact collision was in service of the team’s mission — not any particular individual’s whims.

Rallying around that discipline, the Blues ran roughshod over the Boston Bruins on Monday night to tie the series at 2-2.

St. Louis knows that it won’t prevail against Boston in a freewheeling setting. Sure, pressure the Bruins. Just don’t break your posture in an effort to plow them through the boards. The Blues played as though that message was resonating in their minds, as they struck a perfect balance of relentlessness and restraint. In 50/50 battles, they barreled into the corners to gain possession and establish a cycle that can wear even the most resilient team down. Otherwise, they never bit off more than they could chew. If a defenseman pinched to extend a play or a forward steamed up the ice to engage a Bruin, someone was there to back him up. They supported each other in all three zones, and as a result, they kept Boston’s counterattack under wraps.

Since the odd-man rushes and power plays were few and far between, the Blues were able to impose their pace. This wasn’t a series of one-and-dones. They entered the offensive zone with speed, leaned on Boston’s blueliners to disrupt their breakout and downright swarmed them below the goal line. In essence, they demonstrated a much stronger belief in their own brand of hockey than in Game 3, tilting the ice toward Tuukka Rask’s crease and waiting for Boston to break.

At 5-on-5, Berube’s troops controlled 62.0% of the shot attempts, 56.2% of the scoring chances and 60.0% of the high-danger opportunities. Better yet, they were remarkably consistent, maintaining a similar level of puck dominance throughout the night. In the end, that was too much for the Bruins to overcome. They conceded three even-strength goals in a 4-2 loss.

A bit of good fortune allowed the Blues to set the tone early.

Not even a minute into the contest, Vince Dunn’s point shot was deflected by Zach Sanford in the high slot. Ryan O’Reilly, who was spinning off Torey Krug’s coverage, had the puck land right on his stick by the side of the net and his quick wraparound beat Rask to the far post to open the scoring.

That rebound charting a path to a pivoting O’Reilly was indeed fortunate, but this is exactly how the Blues play when they’re rolling. They deliver an initial push from the blue line and then work for their bounces in the trenches. Though that approach may seem tailor-made for Boston to defend given its stingy play in the slot (64.7 HDGF%), Bruce Cassidy’s men haven’t met an opponent that lives and breathes in the dirty areas thus far in the postseason. With enough pressure, the Blues can definitely empty the Bruins’ gas tank and hit them where it hurts. They proved just that in Game 4.

Now it’s a matter of keeping a level head and stringing together such performances back-to-back. Boston holds home ice advantage, so St. Louis can’t afford to slip up anymore.

To that end, Monday night’s showing was especially promising because a pair of veterans shook off their struggles and stepped up in high-stakes situations. O’Reilly scored two goals, but his performance was about total three-zone control. Alongside Sanford and David Perron, he owned 62.5% of the shot attempts and 75.0% of the high-danger chances for an expected goal share of 68.7%. The 28-year-old center looked like his regular season self: He showed great motor and was constantly involved in the action, harassing Boston’s puck-carriers all over the ice and creating space for his teammates with his soft touch.

On the back end, Alex Pietrangelo recovered from a quiet start to the Stanley Cup Final with the finest playoff outing of his career. Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester were absorbing the tough minutes against Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, so St. Louis’ captain was free to attack the Bruins — and did he ever. He posted a 67.7 CF% and 83.3 HDCF%, flashing his wonderful passing and craftiness as the Blues pounded on Boston’s front door from start to finish.

Though he assisted on O’Reilly’s game-winner in the third period, his helper on Vladimir Tarasenko’s 2-1 goal summed up the rearguard’s phenomenal night.

Realizing that he couldn’t snatch Brayden Schenn’s centering pass, Jaden Schwartz lifted Connor Clifton’s stick in hopes of letting a teammate behind him grab the puck. Pietrangelo was happy to oblige, but he went one step further with a nifty toe drag around Marcus Johansson and quick low shot that produced the look Tarasenko required to pot the go-ahead goal. Throughout the entire game, Pietrangelo didn’t merely sit back and supplement the offense. He fueled it with his poise in tight quarters and savvy decision-making.

Berube wasn’t blind to this stellar night either. The head coach gave his captain 29:37 of ice time — nearly five more minutes than his series average. That massive jump is a testament to how significantly Pietrangelo rose to the occasion on Monday.

When St. Louis’ leaders are leading, the club is incredibly difficult to beat because the rest of the squad follows in their footsteps. The spacing on its forecheck becomes so pristine that there’s no letup in the pressure. Opponents feel like the Blues are absolutely everywhere. Oskar Sundqvist’s return from suspension and Vince Dunn’s return from injury were also huge factors, as the former stabilized the fourth unit and the latter provided a welcome dose of firepower from the blue line. With their full lineup, the Blues are a nightmare to handle. While they aren’t the most intimidating team on paper, their impressive forecheck only gets heavier and heavier as series wear on because they never stop coming at you. They win on cumulative damage. They drag you out to the deep end where there’s no room to breathe.

They’re slowly beginning to reap the rewards as well. Through four games against Boston, St. Louis has posted a 55.2 CF% and 52.9 SCF%. More notably, it’s starting to make serious progress in the trenches: 54.0 HDCF% and 55.6 HDGF%. None of the Bruins’ foes to this point have enjoyed this much success by attacking the belly of the beast.

St. Louis took a while to settle in, but it appears to have found its sweet spot in the Stanley Cup Final. It’s turning the series into a war of attrition. It’s using its brains and brawn to get ahead of the Bruins rather than to get back at them.