St. Louis Blues Squander Huge Opportunity vs. Bruins in Game 1

St.-Louis-Blues-Squander-Huge-Opportunity-vs.-Bruins-in-Game-1

Coming into Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Boston Bruins hadn’t played in 11 days. The last time they took the ice, they completed a sweep of the upstart Carolina Hurricanes. A few important figures (Zdeno Chara, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak) were nursing injuries as well.

In other words, they had every reason to be rusty on Monday night…and they were.

Bruce Cassidy’s team was entirely out of sorts to start the game, committing several turnovers and stymieing its own attack with horrid puck management from the back end. St. Louis controlled 68.4% of the shot attempts at 5-on-5 in the first period by clamping down on the Bruins with its forecheck. The forwards sealed the boards and jumped all over the resulting loose pucks. Seven minutes into the frame, Brayden Schenn found some room within the Bruins’ scattered defense and rifled a shot by Tuukka Rask to stun the TD Garden faithful.

The second period didn’t begin promisingly for the Bruins either. Just one minute in, David Pastrnak blindly passed the puck behind his net with no teammate in the vicinity. Schenn pounced on the giveaway and fed sniper Vladimir Tarasenko in the slot for a 2-0 marker that stole any semblance of momentum away from the hosts.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t steal home ice advantage.

While the Blues had the Bruins on the ropes early in this contest, their lack of big-game experience reared its ugly head throughout the remaining 39 minutes. They went from executing the perfect crowd-silencing game plan on the road to repeatedly sabotaging themselves, which in turn fueled the fire of the home team and its boisterous fans. Boston didn’t back into the Stanley Cup Final. It’s a very good and — as of this spring — very deep team that doesn’t need any favors from its opponent. It won’t turn them away, of course.

St. Louis was feeling quite generous on Monday night, committing the two mistakes it simply couldn’t afford to against the Bruins: forcing the issue on offense and taking bad penalties.

The first gift came courtesy of the Blues’ third line. Tyler Bozak, Robert Thomas and Patrick Maroon got a bit too eager to stick a fork in the Bruins, as their tunnel vision took precedence over their fundamentals. They overcommitted to a rush and conceded an odd-man counterattack. With no Blues forward on the right side of the puck, Sean Kuraly was allowed to race into the offensive zone and find Connor Clifton at the side of the net for a crucial 2-1 goal.

Then there was the lack of discipline. Craig Berube’s group offered Boston five power play opportunities in Game 1. That’s dangerous against any team. It’s downright foolish against the top man advantage in the playoffs. Though the Bruins were not in top form, they still managed to convert once on a solo effort from Charlie McAvoy.

Despite the fact that St. Louis has shown great resilience in the postseason, this 2-2 affair suddenly felt like a blowout for the Bruins — and there was no coming back. Over the last two periods, Boston owned a ridiculous 76.2% of the scoring chances and 100.0% of the high-danger looks. They bombarded Jordan Binnington with shots from every direction, as the Blues lost their cool and abandoned their structure. They were merely hoping to survive, and with the help of their netminder and the goalposts, they did…for a while.

Ultimately, they buckled under Boston’s endless waves of attack.

Binnington, who had played well throughout the game, faltered in the third period. The 25-year-old couldn’t smother a long, harmless shot by Chara, and in the ensuing net-front frenzy, Kuraly deftly corralled a rocket pass by Noel Acciari and tucked home the game-winner.

There’s more to the 4-2 outcome than goaltending, but if St. Louis hopes to compete in this series, it will need Binnington to forget this setback and show up unfazed for Game 2. Everyone knows the Bruins can score in bunches, but the Blues possess the players and the poise to stem the tide. That very trait has propelled them to the Stanley Cup Final and is the key to their success in this round.

Granted, Berube’s club likely feels more discouraged than Boston’s other postseason opponents after Monday’s contest. The Blues imposed their heavy forecheck and cycle early. Schenn and Tarasenko had a solid outing, whereas Marchand and Pastrnak surrendered virtually every possession they had. For much of the contest, St. Louis took away Boston’s preferred looks on offense, as the high-slot timer and the long seam pass were both non-factors. It established a 2-0 lead and had the Bruins right where it wanted them…and it let them off the hook.

After a slower first period, the Bruins were allowed to dust off the cobwebs and play at their optimal pace. As these playoffs have shown, they’re a daunting, near-unstoppable force once they hit their stride. The decisions get quicker, the forecheck gets nastier and the chemistry is off the charts. All of the stray passes from the opening frame were now tape to tape.

That’s the Boston squad the Blues will face over the remainder of the series. The top forward unit will surely improve its execution, while the blue line will make better choices on the breakout.

As such, Monday represented a golden opportunity for St. Louis to level the playing field. Up two goals early, the Blues had no reason to lose Game 1, but they found a way.

We’re about to discover just how much composure this team really has.