PHT

PHT Midseason Report Card: Atlantic Division

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Now that the All-Star break has arrived it’s time to look back at the first half of the 2017-18 NHL season. Our team-by-team report cards will look at the biggest surprises and disappointments for all 31 clubs and what their outlook is for the second half, including whether they should be a trade deadline buyer or seller.

• Boston Bruins:

Season Review: The Bruins have been the hottest team in the NHL for over a month now. They went into the All-Star break riding an 18-game point streak (14-0-4). They own a 29-10-8 record (66 points) through 47 games. The Bruins are currently second in the division, just five points behind the Bolts with two games in hand. Grade: A.

Biggest Surprise: We all knew that Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak were good players, but nobody could have expected this kind of dominance from Boston’s top trio. They haven’t only dominated in the offensive zone, they’ve managed to keep teams in check in their own end, too.

Biggest Disappointment: There aren’t many disappointments in Boston this season, but Brandon Carlo‘s second season hasn’t gone as well as his first. He’s averaging almost less than two minutes of ice time per game compared to last year and he has just five assists this season.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Buy, buy, buy. The Bruins have a lot of young assets they can use to acquire some help for their playoff push. GM Don Sweeney could be in the market for another scoring forward. Making a splash at the deadline could be the difference between going to the cup final or not.

Second Half Outlook: They’ll suffer a loss in regulation eventually, but they’ve managed to close the gap between themselves and the first-place Lightning enough that they can challenge for top spot in the Atlantic.

• Buffalo Sabres:

Season Review: Things couldn’t have gone much worse for the Sabres in the first half of the season. They head into the break with a 14-26-9 record (37 points), which puts them only ahead of the Arizona Coyotes in the standings. It’s another lost year in Buffalo. Grade: F.

Biggest Surprise: The fact that Evander Kane is having a strong season isn’t a surprise, but he’s on pace to score a career-high 60 points in his contract year. Kane will almost certainly be traded before the trade deadline. Sabres fans will have to hope that he nets them a nice return.

Biggest Disappointment: There are plenty of disappointing things about the Sabres’ 2017-18 season, but the fact that they’ve scored a league-low 114 goals in 49 games. Kane, Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly are the only three players on the roster to hit double-digit goals so far this season.

Trade Deadline Strategy: There’s no doubt that they Sabres will be in seller mode at the deadline. There’s absolutely no way that they’ll make the playoffs, which means they’ll be trading pending unrestricted free agents for draft picks and futures before the end of the month.

Second Half Outlook: With the playoffs a distant dream, the Sabres should focus on finishing as low as they can in the standings, so they can try to land an impact blue liner like Rasmus Dahlin through the draft. Judging on their first half of the season, it won’t be too hard for them to lose during the stretch.

• Detroit Red Wings:

Season Review: The Red Wings season has gone exactly the way most people had anticipated. They aren’t one of the bottom teams in the league, but they’re still 10 points out of a playoff spot. The Red Wings have a 19-21-8 record (46 points) through 48 games. To make matters worse, they went out and signed veterans like Trevor Daley in free agency. It’s time for them to start embracing the rebuild. Grade: D+.

Biggest Surprise: Dylan Larkin is having quite the bounce back season. He currently leads the Red Wings in points with 38 in 48 games this season, which is strong considering he had just 32 all of last year. The 21-year-old appears to be back on the right track. It looks like he’ll turn into the player they hoped he’d be after his strong rookie season.

Biggest Disappointment: Only the Senators, Coyotes and Sabres have found the back of the net less often than the Red Wings in the first half of the season. Justin Abdelkader, Henrik Zetterberg and Larkin have combined to score just 22 goals. That’s simply not enough if the Red Wings want to make a statement in the East.

Trade Deadline Strategy: The Wings front office needs to realize that it’s time for them to sell off veteran assets like pending unrestricted free agent Mike Green. It’s time for them to start piling up young assets and draft picks, so that they can start putting together another dynasty.

Second Half Outlook: Their 10 points out of a playoff spot, so they won’t be able to play deep into April, but they aren’t quite as bad as the Buffalo Sabres either. Expect the Red Wings to play spoiler as the season goes on.

• Florida Panthers: 

Season Review: The Panthers have some talent on their roster with players like Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau, but it’s clear that they’re still lacking in the depth department. Florida has 19-22-6 record (44 points), which puts them 12 points out of a Wild Card spot. Grade: D.

Biggest Surprise: Trocheck is coming off a pair of back-to-back 50-point seasons, but he’s been on a roll this year. Trocheck is already up to 18 goals and 44 points in 47 games this season. Nobody expected the Panthers forward to score at nearly a point-per game pace.

Biggest Disappointment: Veteran forward Radim Vrbata‘s production has fallen off the map. After scoring 20 goals and 55 points last season, he has just five goals and 13 points in 35 games this season. The fact that they’re lacking in the depth scoring department is partly Vrbata’s fault.

Trade Deadline Strategy: The Panthers don’t have much to trade in terms of rentals, but they could look to make a hockey trade or two to improve their outlook going forward. They’ve built a strong core with Huberdeau, Barkov and Aaron Ekblad, but they clearly need more if they want to get back to the playoffs next season.

Second Half Outlook: Like the Red Wings, the Panthers have enough talent not to finish in the basement of the Eastern Conference. They’ll likely be looking to play spoiler for teams hoping to make the playoffs.

• Montreal Canadiens: 

Season Review: The Canadiens have been one of the biggest disappointments in the league this season. They had legitimate playoff aspirations at the start of the year, but they’ve fallen totally flat. They don’t have enough scoring, their defense is mediocre and Carey Price can’t do everything himself. Grade: D.

Biggest Surprise: Brendan Gallagher is having a strong bounce back season after dealing with a few injuries over the last couple of years. Gallagher is on pace to score 30 goals for the first time in his career. But even beyond the numbers, he’s continuously been the heart and soul of his team all season.

Biggest Disappointment: Jonathan Drouin was the major acquisition of the offseason and he just hasn’t lived up to the hype. He’s still young, but his transition to center has been slow, painful and filled with mistakes. Drouin is far from the only disappointment on the roster, but he’s the one they were counting on to be their next local superstar. There’s still time for him to turn it around, it just hasn’t happened as quickly as most expected.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Marc Bergevin will surely look to sell off expiring contracts like Tomas Plekanec, but it sounds like they could be looking to shake things up in the locker room, too. Max Pacioretty‘s name has come up in trade rumors. If they make that move before the deadline that would be a huge wake up call to the players in the locker room.

Second Half Outlook: The Canadiens don’t have much coming through the pipeline, so they need to focus on being as bad as they can be in order to increase their odds of winning the lottery. They’ll be competitive some nights because of Price, but giving Antti Niemi a few more starts down the stretch could be a subtle way to tank.

• Ottawa Senators:

Season Review: Oh how things can change quickly in the NHL. The Senators were a goal away from going to the Stanley Cup Final last season, but they’ve fallen off the map completely in 2017-18. Ottawa’s 39 points put them just two ahead of the lowly Sabres, who are in the basement of the Eastern Conference. All this talk of trading Erik Karlsson certainly hasn’t helped their team. Grade: F.

Biggest Surprise: Mark Stone has put up a pair of 60-point seasons in his career, but he’s rolling at exactly a point-per-game pace through 44 games in 2017-18. The 25-year-old’s play is definitely the biggest positive to come out of this season for the Senators even though he’s banged up right now.

Biggest Disappointment: The Matt Duchene trade simply didn’t give the Sens the shot in the arm they were looking for. To make matters worse, the Avalanche and Predators have been rolling since the three-way trade went down earlier this season. This whole year has been a colossal disappointment in Ottawa, and the trade that was supposed to fix everything hasn’t done that at all.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Like most of the other teams in the division, the Senators will look to be sellers at the trade deadline. It’s also important to keep things in perspective. As much as their season has been a disappointment, they’ve still managed to get top prospects Thomas Chabot and Colin White some playing time. They need to find a way to add youngsters to their up-and-coming group.

Second Half Outlook: Well, when you’re 17 points out of a playoff spot it’s easy to see what your second half will look like. One thing they should try to do between now and the end of the season is make Erik Karlsson happy again. They’ve done a horrendous job of doing that since October, so it’s time for them to admit their mistakes and get him signed to a long-term deal. Or else, you might as well blow this team up.

• Tampa Bay Lightning:

Season Review: After missing the playoffs last season, the Lightning couldn’t have asked for a much better first half of the season. Sure, they might be slumping a little bit heading into the All-Star break, but that’s bound to happen to every team over an 82-game season. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, Andrei Vasilevskiy and the gang have emerged as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. They have the best record in the NHL at 34-12-3, which gives them a grade I could’ve only dreamed about when I was in school. Grade: A+.

Biggest Surprise: Sergachev was made a healthy scratch in the last two games before the break, but he’s clearly been the biggest surprise on the team. When the rookie blue liner was acquired from the Canadiens last summer, no one expected him to play such a big role on this season. The 19-year-old has eight goals and 27 points in 47 games during his first full NHL season. Honorable mention to Yanni Gourde.

Biggest Disappointment: They have the best record in the league, they’ve scored the most goals in the league and they have the best goal differential in the league, so writing down a disappointment seems unnecessary.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Most people will say that the Lightning need to be buyers. Sure, they could add a complimentary piece or two to their roster, but they don’t have to go overboard. Their team is clearly good enough to make a Stanley Cup run if they stay healthy, and making a major trade might disrupt chemistry. GM Steve Yzerman should be looking to make small tweaks to his roster, nothing more.

Second Half Outlook: As good as they were in the first half, they need to make sure they keep rolling from February through the end of the season. They can’t allow themselves to get complacent. Getting home ice advantage throughout the playoffs should be the goal. They’re definitely talented enough to get the job done.

• Toronto Maple Leafs: 

Season Review: The Leafs came out of the gate like gangbusters at the start of the season. They were scoring goals by the truckload and they were skating everybody out of the building. They looked like they were going to give the Lightning a run for the division crown, but things haven’t materialized that way. Their offense has dried up in recent weeks and many of the players they were counting on to produce haven’t done that. The injury to Auston Matthews earlier this season seemed to have set them back. Despite all that, they are comfortably in a playoff spot with a record of 28-18-5 (61 points). Grade: B.

Biggest Surprise: It’s not necessarily a surprise, but Morgan Rielly has been a real positive on a team that is clearly lacking good defensemen. The Leafs blue liner has taken another positive step in his development and that’s led him to tallying more points. The 23-year-old is already up to 31 points through 47 games this season (his career high is 36). They need him to get healthy.

Biggest Disappointment: The Leafs’ play in their own end still isn’t good enough to be considered an elite team in the league or even the conference. They rank in the bottom half of the NHL in goals allowed, and that’s something that will have to change if they’re going to compete with the Bruins and Lightning.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They have to go out and find themselves another competent, puck-moving defenseman. They clearly have enough offense to get the job done, now they have to find a way to land a blue liner that can play top-four minutes. Making that kind of trade is difficult during the season, but they’ll need to do it if they want to make it out of the first round.

Second Half Outlook: Babcock and his team will never admit this, but they’ve pretty much wrapped up a playoff spot. Now, they’ll have to focus on getting their game in order before the postseason hits in April. Whether they face Tampa Bay or Boston, they’ll have their hands full. And as bright as the future is, another first-round exit would be disappointing.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Bobby Orr’s teammates recall legendary Stanley Cup-clinching goal

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Two weeks before Christmas 1969, Wayne Carleton was informed he was traded to the Boston Bruins. The 23-year-old winger, nicknamed “Swoop,” had spent the past four years with the Toronto Maple Leafs, mostly shuttling back-and-forth between the minors. In Boston, he got an opportunity, playing 42 games the rest of that season, the second-most of his career.

Carleton ended up on the left wing of Harry Sinden’s “checking line” with Derek Sanderson and Ed Westfall. The trio were so good together that the Bruins head coach put them on the ice to start overtime in Game 4 of the 1970 Stanley Cup Final against the St. Lous Blues.

Sinden’s reasoning? He believed that most overtime’s ended early and with Blues head coach Scotty Bowman throwing out Red Berenson, Larry Keenan and Tim Ecclestone — a line that had combined for 17 goals and 32 points in 16 playoff games — it was the Bruins’ threesome’s job to keep them off the board.

“We were quite efficient,” Carleton told NBC Sports. “We had two good lines and then our line, the checking line, and we dominated that series. There was no question. That’s why we started the overtime, because we had dominated St. Louis in every shift of all four games. That’s why Harry [Sinden] picked us to go out in the overtime. Proved him right.”

Sinden’s thinking was that his checking line could withstand whatever the Blues would start with, then he could get his big guys — Phil Esposito, Wayne Cashman, Ken Hodge — out there to ice the series and win the Cup.

Overtime didn’t last very long. 40 seconds, in fact. The Blues could not muster an attack as the Bruins kept pressing. Orr would dump the puck in deep from center ice and it was Carleton who out-skated Ecclestone and centered a pass out in front of Glenn Hall’s net, but Sanderson couldn’t get good wood on it. The puck would remain in the St. Louis zone as Boston attempted three more shots to no avail.

That third try, off the stick of Sanderson, rung around the right boards to a pinching Orr, who kept it in and dished it off to Sanderson, who was parked behind the net. As soon he fed Sanderson, Carleton circled around and headed toward the slot as a second passing option.

History has shown us repeatedly who Sanderson chose to receive his pass. But Carleton likes to joke that the legend of “The Goal” wouldn’t have been the same if he were the hero.

“I was right behind [Blues defenseman Noel Picard],” Carleton recalled. “People say ‘If the rebound had come out, you’d have probably scored it because everybody was turned the other way.’ I said, ‘If I’d have scored [the goal] wouldn’t have been famous.'”

After Orr scored and flew threw the air — thanks to some help from Picard — Carleton was the first one to grab him as the celebrations inside Boston Garden began.

“He landed and I was right there,” said Carleton “It was fun. Great memories. It was certainly a signature event and the right guy scored it.”

AP Images

Derek Sanderson’s arms were raised in celebration, but he still need to take a quick peek in the direction of the referee. The Bruins forward was ready to celebrate his first Cup victory but just wanted to be sure there was no penalty about to be called to negate the goal.

Referee Bruce Hood’s arm was raised, but he was pointing toward the Blues’ net, signaling a good goal.

In the build up to the Orr goal, it was Sanderson who had two chances to be the Game 4 hero, but his two shots in overtime failed to beat Hall.

“It pissed me off,” Sanderson joked. “I said [to Bobby] ‘Why didn’t you pass the puck to me?’ He said, ‘You got a couple shots. Don’t blame me, you hit the post, it came to me, you went into the corner and I passed it to you.'”

Sanderson’s pass capped off a memorable season for Orr, who won the Hart Trophy, Art Ross Trophy (120 points), Norris Trophy, and Conn Smythe Trophy (nine goals, 20 points) that season. The Bruins defenseman was playing on a different level than the rest of the NHL. His teammates knew he couldn’t be stopped, which is why when one of Sanderson’s missed overtime shots went around the boards to Orr’s side, he knew Orr would be there to get the puck while he went and set up behind the Blues net.

“I was an out for somebody [in that position] and then Bobby went by Ecclestone,” Sanderson recalled. “He jumps past Ecclestone. Ecclestone’s waiting for the puck to come around the boards. Bobby doesn’t wait that long. That was the genius of it. He jumped past him. But if he misses it, or I missed the pass, there’s nobody but St. Louis Blues going the other way. But Bobby didn’t miss.”

Ecclestone’s decision was the first of two bad decisions by Blues players in that sequence. The second came from defenseman Jean-Guy Talbot, who left Orr to defend Sanderson as the Bruins blue liner was left all alone as he moved to the front of the net. With Picard stuck in his spot between the faceoff circles, that gave Orr plenty of room to complete the give-and-go play with Sanderson, something the pair did a lot while on the ice together.

“[Talbot] should have never have come to me behind the net. He reached his stick out and that made him absolutely dead in the water,” Sanderson says. “I know it was a mistake because I’ve made it. … When he came to me, his odds were he couldn’t stop Bobby, he was out of position and so he went and tried to stop me, which was fool-hardy. He should have taken me from the front of the net when I missed the shot. That’s where he missed his opportunity. 

“That’s the difference between [other players] and Orr. Orr didn’t stand still. He was always anticipating.”

When you look at Ray Lussier’s famous photo Orr, obviously, stands out, and your eyes might focus in on Picard’s assist on Orr’s leap or even shift over to Hall, who was crumbling back into his net. But if you peer to the right side of the image, squint your eyes a tad, you’ll notice Ed Westfall covering the right point.

Westfall was a winger, but he actually started his NHL career as a defenseman, and found himself in that position later in his career while with the New York Islanders. Two-way play was one his strengths, so it was an instinctive decision when Westfall raced to cover for Orr after he pinched in as the puck rung around the boards to right side.

“We did that regularly,” recalled Westfall. “It was a normal reaction when Orr went offensive, which was a great deal, then I just automatically fell back to cover.”

With Orr’s defense partner, Don Awrey, covering the left point and Westfall on the right, the Bruins would have been well-prepared if Sanderson’s pass to Orr was intercepted and the Blues transitioned the other way. 

But Westfall’s defensive needs weren’t needed in the moment and he had a clear view of the famous goal from his place on the ice. But even if the pass failed and sent the Blues the other way, Orr’s extraordinary skating ability would have allowed him to get back in time to help prevent a scoring chance. 

“What’s the primary fundamental in hockey? It’s skating,” Westfall said. “He was one of the greatest skaters I ever saw. Not only for speed, but for power and ability to be able to think as quick as you’re moving. That’s the hard for a lot of us was if I could move that fast would my brain be able to keep up? Probably not.”

Don Awrey doesn’t have a presence in any of the two famous photographs of Orr’s Cup-winning goal. The 26-year-old stay-at-home defenseman was afraid of getting caught up ice, so he focused on his defensive responsibilities and let Orr work his magic all over the ice.

“I’m not in that picture. I’m back in my position that I should have been,” Awrey said “I was back there. Bobby was out of position, but thank goodness he was out of position.”

The self-described “most defensive defenseman there ever was” knew his role and played it well. So when Sinden started the overtime in hopes of keeping the Blues’ quiet offensively, Awrey was the perfect guy to have out there.

“You didn’t start me to score the winning goal,” he joked.

The pairing of Awrey and Orr was a perfect one. They complemented one another, and Awrey quickly got used to seeing Orr out of position all over the ice.

“I knew he had [No. 4] on his back because that’s all I saw,” said Awrey, who’s worked as an off-ice official tracking shots for last 20 years with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades. “He was up the ice all the time. All I did was see No. 4 go whizzing by me. Sometimes he’d pass me between me and the boards on my side of the ice.”

To Awrey, Orr was the best hockey player he ever played with, and Awrey was a member of Canada’s 1972 Summit Series team and the 1975-76 Cup winning Montreal Canadiens. As the rest of the NHL discovered Orr’s skating ability, hockey sense and knowledge of the game was second to none.

Forty-nine years after that series, Awrey’s memories isn’t what it used to be, but it’s impossible to forget “The Goal.”

“I would have liked to have scored the winning goal, then I would have had all those accolades that Bobby got,” Awrey joked. “But it wasn’t meant to be.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Blues vs. Bruins: PHT predicts 2019 Stanley Cup Final

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The long road of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs has brought us to the Stanley Cup Final as the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues feature in the best-of-seven series. The Bruins are looking for their seventh Cup title and first since 2011, while the Blues are hoping to claim their first ever championship.

Here’s the full Cup Final schedule:

(All times ET, subject to change).

GAME 1Monday, May 27: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET, NBC
GAME 2Wednesday, May 29: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET,  NBCSN
GAME 3Saturday, June 1: Boston Bruins at St. Louis Blues | 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN
GAME 4Monday, June 3: Boston Bruins at St. Louis Blues | 8 p.m. ET, NBC
*GAME 5Thursday, June 6: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET, NBC
*GAME 6Sunday, June 9: Boston Bruins at St. Louis Blues | 8 p.m. ET, NBC
*GAME 7Wednesday, June 12: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET, NBC
*If necessary

You can also stream every single game of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final by clicking here.

Now on to the predictions. Let us know in the comments how you think the series is going to play out.

SEAN: Bruins in 6. It won’t take long for the Bruins to say goodbye to any of the rust they’ve accumulated since the 11 days following their four-game sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes. Once they get over that they’ll go back to getting strong production from their top line, quality special teams, timely scoring from their secondary contributors and continued Conn Smythe Trophy worthy play from Tuukka Rask.

JAMES: Bruins in 6. Expect a touch of rust from the B’s early on in this series, but considering the age of the non-Pastrnak-sectors of the Bruins’ core, the rest should be worth it. Rask’s just as hot as Binnington, the Bruins’ power play is a game-changer, and Boston can adapt to any style, including the Blues’ rough-and-tumble ways. Boston’s reign of sports terror continues with another Bruins championship.

ADAM: Blues in 6. Maybe it’s just because we are so used to seeing Boston teams winning championships when they have the chance to play for one, but there seems to be this sentiment that another Boston-based team is just going to cruise to victory in this series. I am not buying it, friends. The Blues have been every bit as good as them over the second half of the season and the playoffs and have everything clicking for them right now. Vladimir Tarasenko is playing like a monster, Jaden Schwartz has been white-hot all postseason, and even though Jordan Binnington has had his occasional tough games, he has rebounded well every single time and has played great in big moments. Add in the fact the Blues have been a lockdown team defensively and this is a rock solid team from top to bottom. They kicked the door down to finally get back in the Stanley Cup Final and now they are going to walk through it and take it. 

JOEY: Blues in 7. The Blues made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final while getting marginal even-strength production from Vladimir Tarasenko and just five combined goals from Brayden Schenn and Ryan O'Reilly. Tarasenko has started heating up at the perfect moment, O’Reilly picked up three assists in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final and Schenn also found the back of the net in that win. Combine that with the fact that Jordan Binnington is playing at a high level right now, and you have a team that’s built for the Stanley Cup.

SCOTT. Bruins in 7. I picked Boston from the start and that’s not going to change. What I do expect, however, is one hell of a series. The Blues have proven to the world how good they are, how much quality they’re getting between the pipes and how they can bounce back from losses. But Tuukka Rask has been better than Binnington and while St. Louis has some great players — take nothing away — if the likes of Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak are on their game, I don’t see how the Blues can negotiate that.

RYAN: Blues in 7. The Bruins have the star power, the depth, and the hot goaltender that you want to see in a Cup contender, but I think St. Louis’ cold start to the season has led to them being underestimated while Boston might have been put a bit too much on a pedestal recently. Ultimately, why I’m giving the Blues the edge is because I look at the competition they had to go through to get here in Winnipeg, Dallas, and San Jose, and I think they’re the team that has been more thoroughly tested in these playoffs. One recent example that’s particularly impressive is how they responded to losing Game 3 in the Western Conference Final due to a goal off a hand pass by winning the next three games. Jordan Binnington seemed particularly angry immediately after that call, but he simply shook it off to play a key role in Game 4 and allow a mere two goals over his final three games. Meanwhile, the Bruins had a hard fought series against Toronto, but after that, they were facing teams that were good, but not battle hardened or necessarily ready for the next step. It also likely doesn’t do the Bruins any favors that they last played on May 16 and Game 1 is set for May 27. That could give the Blues a little extra edge in Game 1 that they need to take a contest in Boston.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
Who has the better goaltending?
Who has the better special teams?

X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
How the Blues were built
How the Bruins were built
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Bruins, Blues set to clash in bruising Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — When the NHL altered its rules with an eye toward speed and skill, this is not the Stanley Cup Final it had in mind.

Hockey is becoming less of a big man’s game, offense is up and it’s faster than ever. Then there’s the big and tough St. Louis Blues facing off against the bigger and tougher Boston Bruins in the final that shows size still matters in the playoffs.

”They are physical, we’ll be physical,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said Sunday. ”I don’t think we shy away from that type of game.”

The past decade-plus has been a study in the NHL getting younger and quicker, and previous champions like Chicago in 2013 and 2015 and Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017 exemplified that. The 2019 champion will show there are still many kinds of blueprints for winning, though skill is still needed along with size and physicality.

When the puck drops on Game 1 Monday night, the bruises will begin in what should be a throwback series with the Stanley Cup on the line.

”At this point you’re going to get both teams coming out of the gates laying their hits,” big Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. ”It’s going to be a heavy series. It’s hard to say how much physicality will be going both ways. I’m sure guys will be looking to get their licks in.”

Boston and St. Louis don’t lack high-end skill, from goaltenders Tuukka Rask and Jordan Binnington to scorers Brad Marchand and Vladimir Tarasenko. They do resemble their coaches – Cassidy, who has become a mature, straightforward communicator and Craig Berube, a no-nonsense, team-first guy who has turned the Blues into a north-south, no frills team.

These teams are in many ways mirror images of each other based on their gritty styles and how tough they are to crack.

”The two hardest, heaviest teams are in the final,” San Jose Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said after his team was eliminated by the Blues in the Western Conference final. ”Everybody talks about skill and speed, there’s room for all these small players. There is a room for that. But I don’t think it’s an accident.”

It’s certainly no accident that the Bruins and Blues like to make opponents black and blue. Bruins forward Danton Heinen said physicality is what he and his teammates have tried to deliver all year long and will continue to, but the Blues figured out last round that they need to be more selective about dishing out punishment.

”You can’t just run around out there,” St. Louis forward Oskar Sundqvist said. ”When you’re going to hit, you need to hit with a purpose.”

The purpose now is to lift hockey’s hallowed trophy. After Bruins center Patrice Bergeron played the 2013 final with broken ribs and a punctured lung, there’s not much guys won’t do this time of year at their own expense.

”This is the Stanley Cup. This is what everyone plays for,” Boston forward Jake DeBrusk said. ”It’s going to be fun, physical and pretty intense, so hopefully the body holds up for everybody here.”

GOALIE DUEL

With a league-best 1.42 goals-against average and .942 save percentage, Rask is the front-runner to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Rask is in his second final as a starter after being on the Boston team that lost to Chicago in six games in 2015.

”It’s a team sport,” Rask said. ”Everybody has to pull their load. That’s the only way you can win.”

All the Blues is win, win, win no matter what since Binnington made his first NHL start in early January. They won 30 of their final 45 games to get into the playoffs, and Binnington has a 2.36 GAA and .914 save percentage in the playoffs.

No goalie has won the Conn Smythe since Jonathan Quick with Los Angeles in 2012.

CUP EXPERIENCE DISPARITY

The Bruins and Blues play similar styles yet have very different levels of winning this time of year.

Five Boston players – Rask, captain Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Krejci – are still around from the 2011 Cup-winning Bruins, and Joakim Nordstrom won in 2015 with the Blackhawks. St. Louis has two players with Cup rings, though even that should have an asterisk because Jordan Nolan (2012 and 2014 Kings) hasn’t played since January and Oskar Sundqvist (2016 Penguins) only skated 20 regular-season and playoff games with Pittsburgh that year.

”Our guys that have been there, that have won a Cup, have lost a Cup, that should give us an edge,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said.

Of course, a year ago the Washington Capitals had only one Stanley Cup winner in Brooks Orpik before Alex Ovechkin lifted it in Las Vegas. Armstrong is banking on his players earning their experience in the final.

”Hopefully a year from now we’ll say, geez, St. Louis has got a lot of championship experience,” Armstrong said.

MAY SWEEPS

To say this has been a weird playoffs would be the understatement of the league’s 101-year history. Top seeds Tampa Bay and Calgary were knocked out in the first round along with fellow division winners Washington and Nashville, and the Lightning were actually swept by Columbus.

But there has also been a strange pattern with sweeping teams that the Bruins hope is a coincidence and not a trend related to too much time off. The New York Islanders swept Pittsburgh in the first round, then got swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round. Carolina? Yeah, swept in the Eastern Conference final by the Bruins.

Boston also beat Columbus after the Blue Jackets swept the Lightning, making teams that won their previous series four games to none a combined 0-3 so far.

”It’s something that naturally you’re going to think about a little bit,” DeBrusk said.

INJURY WATCH

Attrition to the San Jose Sharks helped St. Louis get through West final, and despite their physicality, the Blues and Bruins have been fairly fortunate when it comes to injuries this postseason. St. Louis defenseman Vince Dunn missed the past three games with an upper-body injury but returned to practice wearing a full shield over his face, and forward Robert Thomas skated Saturday after leaving early in the third period West final clincher Tuesday.

Dunn is unlikely to play in Game 1 but could be available later in the series. Thomas is expected to play despite not practicing Sunday.

The Bruins have had a week and a half off to heal up, which is good news for captain Zdeno Chara, who was injured and didn’t play in Game 4 of the East final. They got a bit of a scare when Marchand jammed his left hand after bumping into teammate Connor Clifton during an intrasquad scrimmage to stay sharp during the long layoff.

Marchand missed practice Sunday, but coach Bruce Cassidy said it was for maintenance and expects Boston’s leading scorer to be good to go for Game 1.

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Bruins ready to shake off rust, use experience in Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON — You ask the Boston Bruins how they’ve spent their 11-day break between the Eastern Conference Final and the Stanley Cup Final and the most popular response is sleep.

“Rest is a weapon,” former Ottawa Senators head coach Guy Boucher liked to say. And sure, any NHL player at this time of year would love to get some additional rest between series but nearly two weeks off isn’t ideal. It’s why head coach Bruce Cassidy organized a full scrimmage Thursday night in front of a full crowd at TD Garden. Keeping that sharpness is key and Cassidy and his staff have tried to figure out ways to maintain that ahead of Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues Monday night (8 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

But all that time off grew old fast for the Bruins. Whether they caught up on sleep, cleaned out the DVR, enjoyed the nice spring weather, or spent time with their families, puck drop can’t arrive soon enough.

“You just want to play this time of year,” said forward Brad Marchand. “Nobody wants to practice. Guys just want to play. … This time of year no one needs to practice, no one wants to practice. You want to play the games.”

The start of Game 1 of the Cup Final is always interesting to watch. There’s an initial feeling out process that takes place before both teams finally settle into their systems, the nerves go away and the series officially begins. For the Bruins, they might start off slow given their extended break, but it’s not something that will stick.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“You can shake off some rust and we might have a little bit of that, but fatigue is something you can’t shake,” said forward Sean Kuraly. “We’ve taken it in stride. It was the hand we were dealt. You take it like anything else in the playoffs.”

Assisting the Bruins in that department has been their veteran leadership. Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, and Tuukka Rask played in the 2011 and 2013 Cup Finals, winning one and losing one. While when breaking down the Bruins and Blues you can see plenty of similarities between the teams and how they got to this point, there’s one area where Cassidy believes they have an edge.

“Experience,” he said. “I just believe that our guys that have been there, that have won a Cup, have lost a Cup, that should give us an edge. Some people disagree with that once you’re here, but I believe it will give us an edge. I think it’s helped us a lot this week in the preparation, with all the down time, and hopefully going forward that is an advantage for us.”

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
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X-factors for Bruins, Blues

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Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.