For the second consecutive year, the National Hockey League will stage a Stanley Cup Final matchup that few saw coming.
The Boston Bruins, a team that has been among the better squads in the Eastern Conference for the better part of this decade, wasn’t a team that was picked by many to win the Prince of Wales Trophy. Thanks to a slew of upsets in the first round of the playoffs, the Bruins had an easier route to the Finals than was expected. But here they are, looking to win their second championship in nine years.
The Clarence Campbell Bowl-winning St. Louis Blues, meanwhile, are in the Final for the first time since 1970 – coincidentally, their last matchup was also against the Bruins, who swept the then-third year expansion team in overtime on perhaps the most famous goal in NHL history by Bobby Orr.
Regardless of how eye-opening this matchup is, it should still be quite entertaining. Here’s the low-down on each team going into Game One tonight:
Boston Bruins (49-24-9, 107 points, second in Atlantic Division)
The Bruins are an interesting case study. They’re a mix of old guard and fresh faces, with many names remaining from their previous runs to the Final in 2011 and ’13 and younger players providing a shot in the arm. This is a physical team that loves to throw their weight around, but won’t overdo it to the point of sacrificing scoring – a trademark of past successful Boston teams.
Boston ices arguably the best line in hockey. Two-way extraordinaire and Selke Trophy finalist Patrice Bergeron is flanked by the talented David Pastrnak and a top-left winger in Brad Marchand – that is, when Marchand isn’t running around starting riff-raff. Marchand is this generation’s version of Claude Lemieux, a pest who can notch 30-plus goals a year but is sometimes too wrapped up in getting under the opposition’s skin.
Long one of the NHL’s most underappreciated centers, David Krejci can set up linemates with ease. Helping him out is typically Jake DeBrusk, one of the better young left wingers in the game and veteran David Backes, who served as the Blues’ captain for five seasons before arriving in Boston nearly three years ago.
One characteristic of the Bruins that is also similar to previous Beantown rosters is their depth. Giving them the ability to roll all four lines with ease are recent imports Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, and younger guys on the rise like Danton Heinen, Sean Kuraly, Joakim Nordstrom and Noel Acciari.
Defensively the Bruins are still anchored by captain Zdeno Chara, who at 42 continues to be effective in his own end. He and veteran Torey Krug are surrounded by two of the NHL’s best youthful rearguards in Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. Matt Grzelcyk, Connor Clifton, Kevan Miller and John Moore round out their defense corps.
Goaltender Tukka Rask, Boston’s full-time starter since 2012-13, has been outstanding in this postseason. One of the league’s upper-echelon starters, Rask had developed a pattern over the last few years of fading down the stretch, but not so this time. Thanks to a reduced workload – playing just 46 games in the regular season – Rask has posted a .942 save percentage and a 1.84 goals-against average this spring and could become the seventh straight goalie to lead his team to the Stanley Cup after playing less than 60 games. Jaroslav Halak backs him up.
Since vanquishing the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the first round, the Bruins have been on fire. Boston has won seven in a row dating back to their series against the Columbus Blue Jackets and also swept the upstart Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final. Their special teams in that time frame – especially against the Hurricanes – were stellar.
St. Louis Blues (45-28-9, 99 points, third in Central Division)
St. Louis’ run to the Final has been nothing short of astounding. After firing coach Mike Yeo in November and replacing him with Craig Berube, the Blues found themselves in last place in the standings on January 3rd. Goaltender Jordan Binnington took over in net from a struggling Jake Allen and has since become the NHL’s latest rookie goalie to get hot and lead his team to within four wins of a title. For his efforts, Binnington was named a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.
Like the Bruins, the Blues are also a physical, heavy team that makes their opponents pay the price for 60 minutes. And like their counterparts, the Blues boast impressive talent up front. Their best center is fellow Selke Trophy finalist Ryan O’Reilly, the former Buffalo Sabre who Blues general manager Doug Armstrong acquired for a song last July. O’Reilly is usually on a line with rookie revelation Sammy Blais and veteran David Perron.
St. Louis’ best goal scorer is sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, a one-time 40 goal scorer and four-time 30 goal scorer. Tarasenko has one of the most accurate shots in the game and helping him deploy it are former Flyer Brayden Schenn and the criminally underrated Jaden Schwartz.
Tyler Bozak, picked up from Toronto over the summer, is an ideal third-line center. At one point Bozak was one of the Maple Leafs’ top two pivots, but not having to go against top defensive pairs every night has taken a load off of his plate. Rookie Robert Thomas and journeyman Patrick Maroon have been perfect linemates for him, while Alexander Steen, Oskar Sundqvist and Ivan Barbashev make up one of the league’s best checking lines. The Blues also have solid reserves in Robby Fabbri, Zach Sanford and Chris Thorburn.
The Blues’ defense corps drips with talent everywhere. Captain Alex Pietrangelo is one of the best in the business and is paired with Joel Edmundson, while former All-Star Jay Bouwmeester is a good match with one of hockey’s rising stars in Colton Parayko. Beyond their top four defensemen, St. Louis boasts enviable depth in the form of Carl Gunnarsson, Robert Bortuzzo, Vince Dunn and Michael Del Zotto.
St. Louis has traveled a tough road to get to this point. After knocking off the Winnipeg Jets – who reached last year’s Western Conference Final – in six games, the Blues needed a seventh game and two overtimes to eliminate the Dallas Stars and took six games to get past a perennial power in the San Jose Sharks.
Prediction – Blues in seven. Despite Boston being perceived by many as the favorite, this series will likely go down to the wire. Both teams are closer in talent level than some may realize. Assuming the Jets, Stars and Sharks didn’t take too much wind out of the Blues’ sails, St. Louis will emerge with their long-sought after Stanley Cup title in a season that has seen many upsets.