The Stanley Cup Final begins Monday in Boston. Our NHL writers take a scalpel to the matchup, predict what bizarre NHL rules controversy might plague the Final and give their thoughts on Brad Marchand, “Gloria” and press box food. Plus, our series predictions!
Who will win the Stanley Cup?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Before we break down the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues, let’s put a bow on the first three rounds of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. The majority of the NHL’s glamour franchises were either out in the first round or in the draft lottery, yet this postseason has been really entertaining. Game 7 between the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights will go down as one of the greatest series finales in NHL history — or at the very least, the most controversial. The Tampa Bay Lightning getting swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets was one of the most exhilarating anti-climaxes in recent sports history. What stuck with you?
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Sixteen overtime games, five game 7s, three overtime game 7s and two double-overtime Game 7s? Insane. The first two weeks felt like some of the craziest hockey I’ve ever experienced. Yet despite the early wackiness — including eight series upsets — things normalized in the end. Two of the most complete teams are in the Final. Over the past two months of the regular season, the Blues (plus-30 goal differential in that span) and Bruins (plus-29) were two of the hottest teams, finishing second and fourth in points in that span, respectively. And let’s note that the Carolina Hurricanes, the other Eastern Conference finalists, were third. These teams deserve to be here, and there’s a reason everyone says we’re headed for a slugfest. Actually, let’s get into that a bit. Greg, what are you expecting, tone-wise, from this series?
Wyshynski: Sharks coach Peter DeBoer recently said that “the two hardest, heaviest teams are in the Final,” which caused some snickers, given the existence of Torey Krug and Jaden Schwartz in the series. But I got his point: These are teams that are usually at their best when they’re playing hard on the puck and like a battering ram in the offensive zone. These are two teams that like to exert their will through their forecheck and love to play with the lead (they’re a combined 13-2 when leading after the first period). The Bruins have shown an ability to put teams away, getting 51.04 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts when leading by a goal. The Blues are just starting to figure that out — a harsh education after the infamous hand pass loss in Game 3 against San Jose. That’s the stylistic take. Emily, let’s start taking a scalpel to this matchup, beginning with the goalies.
Kaplan: As good as Jordan Binnington has been, Tuukka Rask has been better and more consistent. Maintaining a .942 all-situations save percentage is going to be tough. Most people are expecting a slight regression. But I’ve been covering the Bruins all spring, and here’s the stat I can’t get over: In games in which Boston can clinch a series victory, Rask has gone 3-0, stopping 95 of 96 shots (a .990 save percentage). He has been stone-cold when it matters most. OK, now Binnington. He has had a few rougher outings this spring (including allowing six goals to the Jets in Game 3 of the first round), but overall he has impressed because of his unflappability. Even when you saw him lose his composure at the end of the hand pass game, he rebounded spectacularly (he stopped 75 of 77 shots the next three games, going 3-0). Goaltending storylines you’ll hear ad nauseum: Rask’s redemption tour (he’s a big-game goalie, after all!), Binnington’s stint with the Bruins’ farm team and Binnington’s pending contract negotiations. He hits restricted free agency and is going to get paid this summer. But in this series, the edge has to go to Rask.
Wyshynski: I’d give the edge to Rask as well, but I think Binnington has been outstanding when they’ve needed him — namely, in the third period (in which the Blues have given up only 13 goals in 19 games) and after losses. I also think Rask has the edge in front of him. Ageless man/mountain Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy are the only pairing that’s slightly in the red on possession at 5-on-5, but McAvoy leads Bruins defensemen with a 68.42 goals-for percentage. Brandon Carlo learned under Chara before becoming Torey Krug’s partner, and it shows: He’s an ideal counterpart to Krug’s offense. Matt Grzelcyk and Connor Clifton have been an effective third option. For the Blues, Colton Parayko impressed me on both ends of the rink the past two rounds and does what he can while saddled with possession abyss Jay Bouwmeester (but hey, he’s old and needs a Cup!). Parayko has been better than the more lauded Alex Pietrangelo, who has been inconsistent at best while playing with Joel Edmundson. If Vince Dunn is healthy, that’s a boon to the blue line. They can figure out whether Carl Gunnarsson or Robert Bortuzzo should round out the group.
Kaplan: I consider Dunn’s health a huge X factor. The Blues were able to finish off the Sharks without him, but St. Louis wasn’t exactly facing a fully functioning Sharks roster at that point. Dunn is underrated and impressed me anytime I watched the Blues this season. On the forward front, both teams have some superstar-caliber talents, and we’ll be treated to watching two of the best two-way forwards in the game: Ryan O’Reilly and Patrice Bergeron. The Blues often go as Vladimir Tarasenko goes, and the Russian winger is only getting better as the playoffs wear on. After scoring just two points in the first round (both goals) and three points in the second round (also goals), he sizzled with eight points (three goals, five assists) in six games against San Jose. However, Boston’s top line, when clicking — and they certainly have been clicking as the playoffs have worn on — is superior to St. Louis’. I see Boston having the edge in the top six. But when it comes to depth forwards, St. Louis has an advantage, thanks to its fourth line of Oskar Sundqvist, Alexander Steen and Ivan Barbashev, a trio that has been a delight.
Wyshynski: I was really impressed by the way the Bruins’ depth forwards came on the past two rounds. That might even things out as far as the forwards go. One line to keep an eye on: Tyler Bozak, Patrick Maroon and Robert Thomas, the latter of whom has been skipping skates due to what we assume is an injury. They were great against Dallas, trailed off against San Jose and play the kind of offensive game that’s necessary to try to get to Rask. Beyond 5-on-5, the series could swing on special teams. The Bruins’ power play is clicking, at 34.0 percent. For teams with a minimum of 15 postseason games, the Bruins’ power play is second only to that of the 1980-81 New York Islanders (37.8 percent) in the past 40 playoff years. Boston’s power play on the road is 41.7 percent, which is incredible. The Blues are at 19.4 percent, warming up against the Sharks in going 5-21 (23.8 percent). That’s nice but not “second best in the past 40 years” nice. The Bruins also have the special-teams advantage on the penalty kill, at 86.3 percent, while the Blues are at 78.0 percent. Boston has the special-teams advantage here, but one note on St. Louis: The Blues have been short-handed only 41 times in 19 games. Better keep it that way. Emily, what about those off the ice. Any cosmic, team of destiny intangibles?
Kaplan: Let’s not circumvent it. Unless you’re from Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island or parts of Connecticut — or have some connection there or a connection to one of the players — what on Earth are you doing rooting for the Bruins? A Boston win would mean 13 championships for the city in 18 years. Sure, it’s cool to witness dominance, and the Bruins haven’t won since 2011. There are also a few cool stories on their roster. David Backes, after spending his first 10 of 13 NHL years in St. Louis, gets his best shot at a Cup with Boston. Zdeno Chara, 42, is already a legend, but the captain could stand tall for the older guys everywhere in a league obsessed with youth.
But in the context of which team is more deserving? Just as the Hockey Gods rewarded Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals last June, it’s time for St. Louis to have a moment. The Blues’ journey is incredible. Three Stanley Cup Final appearances in the first three years of existence — and nothing since. Sure, they’ve been good — playoffs in 42 of 51 seasons, hence why we often bypass them in the discourse of treacherous championship droughts — but they’ve never been great, and now is their chance. There are also plenty of nuggets to sway the casual fan. A team everyone left for dead in January made a historically stunning turnaround. The hometown boy (Patrick Maroon) who took less money to return home and be with his son. The rookie goalie who seemingly came out of nowhere. The Russian superstar (Vladimir Tarasenko) who came to the city knowing a few licks of English but became part of the community and an adopted son. Ryan O’Reilly rediscovering a purpose. The super fan, Laila Anderson, who inspired the locker room. The anthem singer who is finishing one last run before he must retire due to multiple sclerosis. That’s a whole lot of positive juju tilting in the Blues’ favor.
Wyshynski: OK, I think it’s time to wrap this up with a lightning round.
Will Brad Marchand get a suspension in the Final?
Wyshynski: No. After punching a dude in the back of the head and hooking Justin Williams around the neck with nary a penalty, I think the supplemental discipline bar is set to “one-game suspension for manslaughter.”
Kaplan: Marchand has gone the whole season thus far without discipline, and I think he keeps that streak intact. I’m sure he’ll do something to irritate the Blues — and St. Louis should be disciplined enough to not engage back. At most, Marchand will get a call from his friends at the Department of Player Safety, but it’ll be a fine at most.
What truly bizarre NHL rules controversy will plague the Final?
Wyshynski: A game-winning overtime goal is disallowed because it was scored with a broken stick, the player instead gets a minor penalty, and the opposing team scores on the ensuing power play. If I have correctly predicted this, you all must drop to one knee and accept me as your new king.
Kaplan: Give me puck hits the netting before the team scores a goal, the refs don’t notice, and therefore, they can’t review. This happened against the Bruins earlier these playoffs (with much less fanfare than the hand pass debacle because it was in a less important situation), and there would be some poetry if it resurfaced when the stakes are higher.
Will TD Garden troll the Blues by playing “Gloria” after a win?
Wyshynski: No, but I fear what Boston-related trolling the Blues are going to cook up for games in St. Louis and whether it will involve the Jon Hamm scenes from “The Town.”
Kaplan: No. They’re too focused on everyone’s favorite playoff anthem, “Old Town Road.” (Hey, did you hear Lil Nas X is performing at the Final and plans to wear a Bruins sweater? Enough said.)
Who will have the better press box food?
Wyshynski: I can report that the Blues begin with an assortment of candy that includes Jolly Ranchers and York Peppermint Patties before they unveil two big cauldrons of fried ravioli and other fried goodness after the first period. So, uh, your move, Boston.
Kaplan: Boston’s candy and dessert selection is quite impressive and includes Reese’s Pieces, a big positive in my book. During last year’s playoffs, some maniac diluted the Reese’s Pieces jar with M&M’s. That hasn’t happened yet this spring, and I really hope I’m not jinxing it here.
OK, so who will win the Stanley Cup?
Wyshynski: Blues in six. There’s a lot going for them both cosmically and logically, and if there’s a team that can overcome a lack of home-ice advantage and find a way to get just enough past Rask, it’s the Blues.
Kaplan: Bruins in seven. The red-hot top line, historically good power play and Rask (again, I can’t imagine a steep regression from his playoff dominance so far) put Boston over the edge.
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