The Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues are similar enough in style and philosophy to be fraternal twins. They’ve adapted to the NHL’s dramatic tilt toward youth and speed but haven’t ignored the physical aspects of the game, instead blending them with skill and elevating them into an art form one bruise and one rugged defensive play at a time.
The Stanley Cup Final, which begins on Monday at TD Garden, certainly will be played in the trenches, but there’s enough creativity on both sides to anticipate there will be as many beautiful plays as there will be thumping checks.
“I think both teams bring a little bit of every aspect,” Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo said Sunday during media day activities. “There’s that forechecking component, that physicality component, that skill component, and then obviously the good defensive component. Their goalie’s been playing very well, as well. We recognize that and we’re ready for that challenge.”
Both are big but the Blues are a bit beefier on defense; the Blues have an unshakably calm goaltender in Jordan Binnington, a deserving finalist for rookie of the year.The Bruins have been led by Tuukka Rask, who’s having an MVP-caliber run. Coach Bruce Cassidy and general manager Don Sweeney lightened Rask’s workload to 46 regular-season games, which kept the 32-year-old Finn sharp for the playoffs and kept Jaroslav Halak primed for action.
“I think there’s a big difference if you play 45 or 65 games,” Rask said. “You don’t go on those runs where you play 15 games in a row in the regular season and you don’t have that time to get the rest you want to. You play 15, you take one game off and play another 10, it wears on you, and I think this year that wasn’t the case. I think both of us are mentally and physically ready.”
The Bruins have more experience — seven of their players have appeared in the Stanley Cup Final — while forward David Perron is the only member of the Blues who played in the Final. He got his first taste last season with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, whose journey was even more improbable than the Blues’ climb this season from last in the NHL on Jan. 2 to Cup finalist.
“There’s some funny things that happen in hockey,” Perron said, and he’d know after the last two seasons. “We believe in our team. Even in January, you look at the standings, it’s a great story for you [media] guys but I don’t think we were looking to make stories other than just playing our game, playing good hockey. That’s my approach, our approach, is to this Final. I’ve been here before and I know what the level is at and I feel confident and calm and ready to go.”
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said his players’ lack of experience at this stage shouldn’t be decisive. “I'm sure if I was managing Boston I would say our experience is really great,” he said. “Once they start the game, it's going to be what they do normally. And hopefully a year from now we'll say, ‘Geez, St. Louis has got a lot of championship experience.’”
Another trait the Bruins and Blues share is balance. Boston has gotten at least one goal from 19 of the 22 skaters who have appeared in a playoff game this spring; St. Louis has gotten at least one goal from 18 of 21 skaters. The Bruins have excelled on faceoffs, winning 53.3% of their draws, but the Blues have held their opponents to 28.4 shots per game, four fewer than the Bruins have faced per game. The Blues won a bruising West final against San Jose while the Bruins had 10 days’ rest. However, a long break can throw off players’ timing. The Bruins staged a scrimmage to keep players active but forward Brad Marchand appeared to hurt his hand during that scrimmage. He didn’t practice on Sunday but Cassidy said Marchand will play on Monday.
In a matchup of similar teams Marchand could be the difference. When he skips antics such as licking opponents’ faces and splintering their sticks he’s pretty good at hockey; his career-best 100-point season on the top line alongside Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak attests to that. Teammate David Backes said he has spoken to Marchand about skipping the stupid stuff, and Marchand has gotten only 10 penalty minutes so far. “He’s becoming more focused as a hockey player more than as a shenanigan leader,” Backes said. “When he plays hockey he’s very tough to beat, very tough to contain, very tough to play against. …
“I told him that many times, maybe over a couple of cold beverages. All of a sudden I think that’s starting to resonate with him. He’s focused, he’s getting puck deep, he’s playing hockey rather than worrying about the other stuff that guys that are less talented in the world, like myself, should be concentrating on.”
There’s enough talent and will on both sides to promise a display of the best of hockey’s skill and physicality. Everyone wins there.