Five questions about Bruins-Blues, answered by our hockey writers
Concerns about Boston’s long break? Edge between Tuukka Rask and Jordan Binnington? Key on-ice matchup to watch? Who is St. Louis’s agitator? Unsung heroes to watch?
We had a roundtable discussion with Bruins reporters Matt Porter and Kevin Paul Dupont, as well as columnist Tara Sullivan, to answer a few questions about the upcoming Stanley Cup Final with the St. Louis Blues.
Q. The Bruins haven’t played since May 16. Any concerns that they will be too rusty?
Dupont: Almost impossible to predict, because they’ve never had a layoff of this length. The closest would have been during an Olympic break.
Sullivan: I’ve found it kind of funny how much this question seems to incense Bruins fans, as if it’s an insult to the team to wonder if they’ll have to shake off some rust after 11 days between games. How could they not be rusty? Athletes are creatures of routine, and this schedule is anything but routine. However, I think this team has shown that even if they do come out a bit flat, or on the flip side, a bit too hyped, they know how to adjust and find their balance.
Porter: I think they expect their first few periods to be a bit off-kilter, but they also think St. Louis will deal with the same. It’s the Stanley Cup freakin’ Final. They shouldn’t have trouble summoning the energy — perhaps they’ll have too much of it. I think the series will settle in after Game 1, perhaps by the end of it.
Sullivan: There might be rust on both sides too, no?
Dupont: Gut read: the Bruins will need at least one game to get back their mojo. It should be easiest for Tuukka Rask, because goalies generally don’t need as much time to get back their legs. Bigger issue for a tender is to have his time and “feel” in the crease, and I think he can get that in practices and scrimmages leading up to the opener. But a different deal for the 18 skaters, who have to find their way back on the highway and have to get accustomed again to hitting — both giving and receiving.
Sullivan: The intrasquad scrimmage is certainly unusual, but unusual times call for creative solutions. Seems like a good idea to me just to give the players a chance to follow the schedule of a game day, from morning ’til night time.
Porter: Vets like Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Tuukka Rask. Energy/physical guys like Sean Kuraly, Noel Acciari, Connor Clifton. Heck, sportswriters. Everyone benefits from a bit of a break. Pros know how to ramp it up.
Dupont: I give the Blues a slight edge here, because the Bruins had to wait an extra five days before the Blues clinched. And slight edges are important in the playoffs. It could prove enough for the Blues to take the first game.
Sullivan: As the rust story goes, however, I think Rask is the most interesting to watch, only because he was in such an obvious zone.
Dupont: Tuukka was on it, no question. I just don’t see him slipping because of rest/rust.
Q. Goalies Jordan Binnington and Tuukka Rask have both been at the top of their game. Is that a wash? Or does one team have the edge in net?
Dupont: Edge here to Rask. I am a big believer in experience helping and he’s been here before, in 2013. Contrary to the lasting image, he played very well throughout the ’13 playoffs, including the Final.
Sullivan: Hard to imagine anyone being as good as Rask has been this postseason, but give Binnington credit too. You don’t get to this point without great goaltending. However, I think there are a few things that might — might — give Rask an edge. He has Stanley Cup experience. And he has some motivation from understanding this might be his last shot.
Dupont: Which is not to dismiss the fine work Binnington has turned in thus far. But it’s his first time on this stage and he is a rookie. None of which seemed to work against Pittsburgh and Matty Murray three years ago, right?
Sullivan: Rask’s head seems like it’s in such a good place, too. He’s been so unaffected by everything, missed calls, disallowed goals etc.
Porter: Interesting conversation, considering a few points: Rask has been insane statistically, he has the experience edge as Kevin noted (Rask’s 2013 and Tim Thomas’s 2011 were .940 save percentage performances; Rask’s current .942 tops both). But Rask broke Carolina, a team that didn’t finish as well as Columbus (or certainly Toronto). Binnington really settled in against San Jose, allowing two goals in the final three games, and faced some pretty good snipers in Dallas and Winnipeg over the first two rounds. He, like Rask, appears to be unflappable.
Dupont: I also like the fact Rask should feel he has something to prove, or perhaps to correct. Any goalie, any player, wants a Cup to be part of his legacy. But he should have it as extra motivation, given his age, and given that he almost got there in ’13 and fell two wins short. And just missed playing in a Game 7, if not for the ugly 17-second stretch in Game 6 when the Blackhawks struck twice to erase a deficit and then clinch the Cup — at the Garden.
Q. What is the key on-ice matchup to watch (beyond goalies)?
Dupont: Will be interesting to see how each coach uses his No. 1 defensive pairings. Reason: Both clubs enter the Final with [at least] 18 different goal scorers. [Note: The Bruins have 19.]
Porter: I love Bergeron against Ryan O’Reilly. Two of the game’s best two-way centers, both killers in the faceoff dot. Do they face each other? Can their coaches get them away from each other? O’Reilly will be looking to get to Bergy’s level. Can he?
Sullivan: Right. Who does Chara match up with? Does his injury status concern you guys?
Dupont: So, the Bruins have Chara and McAvoy as their No. 1 shutdown unit, but against what line? All four lines score for the Bluenotes. The biggest threat is the Jaden Schwartz-Brayden Schenn-Vladimir Tarasenko trio. But then there is O’Reilly between David Perron and Sammy Blais. Overall I am more curious about how the defensive D units get used (or abused) than, say, line-to-line matching.
Sullivan: As KPD pointed out, the depth of both teams makes this very interesting from a matchup standpoint, no? Bruins had that so much in their favor the last few rounds, getting fourth-line scoring/energy from KPD fave Sean Kuraly, etc. Maybe not so much of an advantage in the Final?
Dupont: The Bruins have their offensive versatility, too, which will have St. Louis coach Craig Berube deciding how to use his top defensive pairings: Colton Parayko-Jay Bouwmeester; Joel Edmundson-Alex Pietrangelo. Based on what we saw as the first three rounds played out, Berube can’t leave his No. 3 pairing (Carl Gunnarson-Robert Bortuzzo) to cover the third line with Marcus Johansson-Charlie Coyle-Danton Heinen.
Sullivan: So maybe the key on-ice matchup is actually off the ice. Bruce Cassidy vs. Craig Berube: How to use your D pairings.
Porter: Another critical matchup: Bruins’ 34 percent power play against the Blues’ penalty kill. Likely Boston’s most significant edge.
Sullivan: As someone covering their first Bruins Stanley Cup run, watching Bergeron on the power play has been a particular joy.
Dupont: The Final, because of the intensity, often presents unexpected scenarios and story lines. Not to mention the injury factor. With the layoffs — players back in action from near standing starts — hamstrings/groins could be point of concern, though I am sure trainers on both sides are working with players and coaching staff to mitigate the risk.
Porter: Cassidy feels St. Louis is similar to Carolina and Columbus in how they defend the neutral zone in a penalty kill situation (a 1-3, pressuring with one forechecker). He sees St. Louis, with its big, heavy defense that plays closer to the net, as a different challenge than Carolina and Toronto, whose D allowed space between the slot and net (Boston was able to win battles there and score). Unless either team makes big adjustments, Boston could keep its power play production going by finding seams through the middle. We might see more of those cross-ice one-timers that look so pretty.
Sullivan: Interesting — hadn’t thought of that side effect of the layoff but so true. That’s the sort of thing I wonder if they spoke to other teams (i.e. the Patriots) about managing across a long layoff. Cassidy has been pretty good this postseason about rolling with the punches.
Dupont: Glad Ports mentioned power plays. Yes, huge factor. If the Bruins can get right back on the dime, the power play alone can win the series for them. Such a potent power play also forces some cautiousness into the opponent — fearing of getting burned. I don’t anticipate the Blues will take the ill-advised number of offensive zone minors that the Canes accumulated in Round 3. Two lasting no-nos in hockey: goalies who give up shortside goal and skaters who pick up stupid minors in the attacking zone.
Dupont: To add to another good Ports point: The six defensemen who dressed in the Game 6 clincher vs. San Jose all were 6 feet 2 inches or bigger. Topping out with the 6-6 Parakyo (a Brandon Carlo fav, by the way).
Dupont: The attack point for the Bruins on the St. Louis D will be footspeed. Boston forwards might try to work a little more east-west into their attack, to try to get the big St. Louis D men off balance. If you see some slip ‘n falls back there, it could mean Boston forwards are forcing it. Otherwise, the choice is popping the puck to the rear wall, or on net, and trying to overpower some big lads back there. Tough work.
Q. Is there anyone on the Blues’ roster that will get under the Bruins’ skin, a la Brad Marchand?
Sullivan: Well — as KPD pointed out, both teams got through to this point without a single five-minute fighting major, so even if instigators exist, will anyone bite?
Porter: No one on STL (or BOS) has taken a major at all this postseason. I suppose STL did something to buzz off San Jose . . . the top three penalty-takers in the playoffs are Sharks.
Dupont: Yet to hear much from Marchand this postseason in his role as chief agitator. Always a possibility, I guess, but he has really tempered his act. But always worth monitoring.
Porter: Good thought, Dupes. The Bruins, though Chara and Brandon Carlo are Redwoods, are one of the smallest teams in the playoffs. Wondering if Kevin Miller/Chris Wagner absences will hurt, though the B’s haven’t lacked physicality.
Dupont: B’s really will miss Miller in this round. Could use his size in the back end, and I really liked what I saw of him with Matt Grzelcyk on the third pair. A force. Not the same with the Grzelcyk-Clifton duo. But Clifton does dish out some good thumps. I doubt he’ll back off now.
Sullivan: The agitator question is much easier for St. Louis to answer. If the rest of the country has an overall case of Boston sports fatigue, there is a very specific and targeted ire directed at Marchand. No one outside of Boston wants to see him win anything. They won’t even acknowledge that he has, indeed, tempered his act this year, even with an unseen headslap and a few errant stick pokes.
Q. Name some unsung heroes to watch in this series?
Sullivan: I’ll take the layup here and go with Cassidy’s choice from his presser earlier this week: Torey Krug. Done everything asked and more. So. Many. Minutes.
Dupont: I’ll go with Matt Grzelcyk on the Bruins. He has gained confidence through the the first three rounds has shown he can chip in a few goals. Young, fresh(er) legs, a surprisingly good shot. Does not log big minutes, but shows up at interesting times. I also think Connor Clifton’s free wheeling teases some of that out of Grzelcyk.
Porter: Grzelcyk. Third-pair D who defends as well as a 5-9, 174-pound guy can in the rugged playoffs, excellent skater, scored timely goals, played top-pair minutes in Game 4 when Chara was out.
I’ll go with Danton Heinen, too. Doesn’t show up much on the scoresheet, but great defensively, has played both sides of all lines (except Marchand’s first left wing spot) and makes plays. A lot of “third assists” from him. Smart.
My St. Louis hero is any fan who’s been going to games for 50 years and is now enjoying the hell out of this run. Much respect.
Sullivan: Does Jaroslav Halak get unsung hero award for entire season, allowing Rask to be so well rested for the playoff run? Loved that Rask made a point of including him in the celebration for ECF clincher. Class move.
Dupont: I’ll go with Ivan Barbashev, the 23-year-old Moscovite center/wing. He has picked up five points thus far this postseason. Solid-plucky fourth-liner who works with Alex Steen and Oskar Sundqvist. Berube loves the trio. They typically are out there for the game-opening shift (sometimes only briefly). He is the youngest of the bunch and a legit threat, despite unimpressive numbers.
Porter: He and Sundqvist are a great penalty kill duo, too.
Dupont: Agreed, Tara. Halak is among Don Sweeney’s best free agent signings in his four summers as Boston GM. He missed badly with Matt Beleskey and overpaid on David Backes. But Halak was solid in the early going when Rask needed 2-3 months to get his game on track. Not only bought time for Rask to get it together, but gives lineup a comfort factor, if he does get pressed into duty in the Final due to a Rask injury.