Another day, another argument over what is and isn’t being penalized in the most rugged Stanley Cup Final in recent memory. Another suspension too.
Forward Ivan Barbashev, who has done solid work on the St. Louis Blues’ tenacious fourth line, was suspended one game by the NHL and will miss Game 6 at St. Louis on Sunday, the team’s first shot at clinching its first Cup championship.
The league’s department of player safety ruled he delivered an illegal blow to the head of Bruins forward Marcus Johansson at Boston on Thursday, “a high, forceful hit that makes Johansson’s head the main point of contact on a hit where such head contact was avoidable.” It wasn’t penalized on the ice.
Barbashev is the second Blues player to be punished by the league during the Final, after center Oskar Sundqvist was suspended for Game 3 as the result of a hit that left Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk with a concussion. Grzelcyk hasn’t been cleared to play.
Both sides have been collecting untold bruises and injuries, as Blues forward Robert Thomas hasn’t been available since he took a jarring hit from Bruins defenseman Torey Krug in Game 1.
Most of the action between these big, brawny teams has been exciting, a fusion of old-time hockey and modern agility. Given the Blues’ edge in size and the Bruins’ edge in speed, it was imperative for the Blues to play a physical game in order to slow the Bruins. They’ve done that well, especially in muzzling Boston’s top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak in five-on-five play.
The coaches have taken turns lobbying the on-ice officials for more favorable treatment. St. Louis’ Craig Berube, who has done a masterful job in leading his team from last in the NHL on Jan. 2 to within one victory of winning the Cup, took his mastery to new heights by shrewdly suggesting after Game 3 his team was being given too many penalties. That, of course, planted enough doubt in officials’ heads to get them to swing the other way.
Boston’s Bruce Cassidy took Berube’s cue on Thursday and criticized the officiating after Boston’s 2-1 home loss, labeling it “egregious” that no penalty was called on St. Louis’ Tyler Bozak for tripping or slew-footing Boston’s Noel Acciari in the third period.
Will that help the Bruins? At this point, it couldn’t hurt for players to see their coach stand up for them. The level of officiating during the playoffs has been woefully inconsistent, sometimes comically bad.
Not every infraction will be seen and punished in every game, but the NHL owes its players better officiating than this.
With time to reflect, Cassidy was honest Friday when he acknowledged the Bruins’ problems stem more from their own shortcomings than the officials’ gaffes. “Our play should define us, not a call,” he said, citing examples of the Bruins overcoming decisions that went against them in their earlier playoff rounds against Toronto and Columbus.
“We’ve played through certain situations. We’ve got to play through this one,” he said. “It’s not going to be brought up in the locker room. It happened. I felt we actually responded fairly well. We got ourselves back in the game, cut the deficit to 2-1. We had a chance to win. Our play has to define us on the ice, not a non-call, call, whatever.”
To have a chance of extending the Final to a seventh game Wednesday in Boston, they must get more from their power play, which was scoreless in five advantages in the last two games. Subtract their four-for-four performance in Game 3 and they’re two for 15 against the Blues.
“We’ve been aggressive. We’ve forced them to make plays that they don’t want to play, and it’s kind of taken their skill guys out of it early,” St. Louis defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said.
The Bruins have to fight through that and resort to grit when skill won’t carry them. It would help, too, if they’d convert more of the rebounds goaltender Jordan Binnington has been leaving.
“We haven’t been able to get there enough. But I think that’s an area where we can expose him,” Bruins winger Joakim Nordstrom said. “Seems like the pucks are bouncing off of him. You want to obviously shoot more and also get to those rebounds.”
The Blues have gained strength as each playoff series has progressed, compiling a record of 7-1 in the fifth, sixth and seventh games in all four rounds while outscoring their opponents 25-10 in those games.
They’ve made swift and smart adjustments mid-game and mid-series, but their next adjustment might be their biggest: They got too caught up in the emotions and noise at Enterprise Center last week in Game 3, their first home Cup Final game since 1970, and they hope to avoid falling into that trap Sunday.
“Our guys, they went through it already once, and I think they’ll be more prepared this time,” Berube said.