Jets vs. Blues: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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If we’re being honest, this series is incredibly difficult to predict.

There are a few reasons for this. First off, the St. Louis Blues were once the worst team in the NHL. On the final day of the season, they briefly stood atop the Central Division summit before they were surpassed by the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets, the latter of who St. Louis takes on in Round 1.

St. Louis had a ridiculous second half of the season, clipping along with a 30-10-5 record since the clock struck midnight at New Years. Winnipeg, by comparison, took a bit of a dump in the same time frame and lost the first-place spot in the Central that they had held for most of the season with an as-near-as-makes-no-difference .500 record of 22-18-3.

Winnipeg’s first-half record was first in the division. St. Louis’ was seventh. And that was pretty much reversed over the course of the second half of the year. The Jets even won the season series 3-1, outscoring the Blues 18-10 in that span, including an 8-4 drubbing where Patrik Laine scored five goals.

But none of those games happened after Jan. 1. The Jets haven’t faced this re-invented Blues team with their sensational rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington.

Binnington began his life as the Blues starter on Jan. 7, posting a shutout, and went on to win 24 of 30 (24-5-1) games he appeared in after that. His save percentage was .927 during that stretch and he finished first in the NHL with a 1.89 goals-against average. It’s in the running for the story of the year in the NHL.

With Winnipeg’s struggles and St. Louis’ successes, you can see why this one appears up in the air.

On paper, you’d take the Jets. On merit, at least right now, you’d probably bet on the Blues.

If Winnipeg has just been conserving the fuel in their gas tank (after running it dry in the Western Conference Final last season), then they’ve pulled the wool over many an eye and could have a pretty good time against St. Louis.

But if the likes of Laine (with one goal in his past 19 games) can’t figure it out, and if Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele (who have played a ton of hockey this season) can’t shoulder the load, then St. Louis will have an edge and an upset (if you can even call it that at this point).

Winnipeg’s secret weapon here might just be the return of defenseman Josh Morrissey, however. One of the NHL’s best shutdown rearguards is slated for a Game 1 return after missing 20 games with a suspected shoulder injury.

Morrissey, alongside Jacob Trouba, form one of the best shutdown pairs in the NHL. And with Dustin Byfuglien now back and acquainted with the game of hockey after missing half the season with separate ankle issues, Winnipeg might be able to finally stem the bleeding on the backend.

It should be mentioned that some have wondered if the Jets are all working off the same page during their struggles. It’s legitimate. Wheeler has mentioned the word maturity a couple times now in the last several weeks. Leadership has been called into question, especially when the team brought back Matt Hendricks, widely regarded as one of the best room guys in the NHL.

These aren’t the things you want to hear from a team that’s considered a Stanley Cup contender. It certainly causes some concern. How much? Who knows.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 8 p.m.: St. Louis @ Winnipeg | SN, TVAS, NHL Network
Friday, April 12, 9:30 p.m.: St. Louis @ Winnipeg | SN, TVAS, CNBC
Sunday, April 14, 7:30 p.m.: Winnipeg @ St. Louis | CNBC, SN, CBC, TVAS
Tuesday, April 16, 9:30 p.m.: Winnipeg @ St. Louis | CNBC, SN, TVAS
*Thursday, April 18, TBD: St. Louis @ Winnipeg | TBD
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Winnipeg @ St. Louis | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: St. Louis @ Winnipeg | TBD

FORWARDS

BLUES: A big key to this series is if Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O'Reilly can keep leading the team on the scoresheet. Both players, especially Tarasenko, were big reasons why the team won games at the other end of the ice.

It should be noted that the Blues have 13 players with at least 10 goals this season. Sure, that includes a couple defensemen, but it shows they have depth behind the two mentioned above. The Blues need to carry possession and work within the structure that’s got them to where they are. That means being stingy on the backend and turning that into offense the other way.

JETS: If Laine had 10 more goals, you’d be calling this a wash for Winnipeg. It probably still is, given the robust nature of their talent up front. Laine only scored 30 this season, which happens when one of the hottest shots in the NHL finds itself stuck in a deep freeze.

Scheifele led the Jets with 38 markers and probably would have hit 40 is not for slow down at the end of the year. Still, he had a career year and his playoffs last season, before the Jets were bounced, were a display of dominance. If he can rekindle that, that will go a long way in this season. Should also mention Wheeler’s 71 assists, a franchise mark from the elite passer.

Winnipeg’s biggest question here is if they’ll find that depth scoring (and if Laine can figure it out). The Jets brought in Kevin Hayes from the New York Rangers at the trade deadline and will be looking to him to shoulder some of that, along with Nikolaj Ehlers

ADVANTAGE: WINNIPEG: The Jets’ scoring talent is just better. They just need to actually use that talent.

DEFENSE

BLUES: The Blues allowed the fourth fewest shots against this season, which has certainly allowed Binnington to ease into his new role as starter.

The truth of the matter is St. Louis has a sound defense, one that has contributed to the sixth fewest goals allowed in 2018-19. That’s remarkable, given how bad the Blues were prior to their turnaround. Names like Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko chew up minutes, and they have depth, too, with Jay Bouwmeester, Joel Edmundson, Vince Dunn, Carl Gunnarsson and Robert Bortuzzo.

They’re a formidable backend that doesn’t give up a lot of shots, including some of the lowest high-danger chances allowed at five-on-five.

JETS: Without Josh Morrissey, this team would have had major issues, but it appears he will return from a 24-game hiatus due to injury to rejoin Trouba on the top pairing. That’s big news for the Jets, but one can’t help but wonder if the Jets defensive lapses will still continue.

Wheeler mentioned a lack of maturity in this group a couple times down the stretch. It extends to the whole team, of course, but Winnipeg’s defense needs to get it together here.

ADVANTAGE: ST. LOUIS: The numbers don’t lie. St. Louis is a shot-suppressing monster.

GOALTENDING

BLUES: Binningt…. Winnington has put together a run since he got his first NHL start on Jan. 7 that would win him the Calder if those voting stopped worrying about the ‘you need to play x games’ thing.

Binnington has played enough to warrant consideration for a couple of year-end awards, and if he continues that torrid run, he’s going to give Winnipeg fits. The Jets ran up against a white-hot Marc-Andre Fleury in the WCF last year and couldn’t solve him. If Binnington can be that unsolvable puzzle, then that’s going to be tough. But he’s never played on this stage, so there’s that, too.

JETS: Connor Hellebuyck is nowhere near his runner-up Vezina form that he was in last season. But, Hellebuyck has played lately like his runner-up Vezina form that he was in last season. A 9.13 save percentage during the season is nothing to write home about, but his .930 over his final 10 appearances certainly is.

That’s key here. Hellebuyck got some rest throughout the season and it appears to be paying off at a very good time. Hellebuyck can have his moments, and he shouldn’t be allowed to play the puck, but he’s been the model of consistency for a bit now.

Can he outduel Binnginton? That’s the question.

ADVANTAGE: WINNIPEG. It might be crazy, but I’m taking Winnipeg. I think Hellebuyck’s experience slightly edges Binnginton’s lack of it. The stakes get much higher now and Hellebuyck has proven he can handle them in the past. There’s plenty of faith that Binnington’s stone-cold demeanor can do the same, but we need to see it first, just to be sure.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Can Binnington handle the playoff pressure? 

It’s one thing to win the in the regular season. It’s another to win in the playoffs. Binnington, as mentioned above, has been a revelation for St. Louis, but the real pressure begins on Wednesday. Is he up to the task?

Will Winnipeg find its stride? 

It’s been a while since Winnipeg could be called rightful Stanley Cup contender. Their recent play just doesn’t earn the distinction. If they can find their quickness, they’re nearly unbeatable (a 5-0 win against Nashville down the stretch was proof of that). If not, the series is anyone’s guess.

PREDICTION

JETS IN 6. While Winnipeg has struggled on the back nine, it’s hard to write them off just yet. If they turn up the quickness dial, they’re going to cause all sorts of problems for the Blues, no matter how good Binnginton can be.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets

Islanders vs. Penguins
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

NHL players’ favorite Stanley Cup memories as fans

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Not every player has photos of themselves as young fans in team-appropriate jammies like John Tavares with the Toronto Maple Leafs, so it can be fun and surprising to hear about their memories. Sometimes you’d be surprised to learn more about a players’ roots, and rooting interests.

In the fun video above, a variety of NHL players share some of their favorite Stanley Cup memories. You’ll see some expected moments, such as Brandon Dubinsky and Cam Atkinson recalling Mark Messier and the 1994 New York Rangers lifting that curse. The video also reminds us of how dominant the Colorado Avalanche were, as evidenced by a reminiscent Ryan Reaves. And, shield your eyes, Sabres fans, as a foot is, again, in the crease.

There are some other interesting touches. One mildly sad aspect is that Canadian NHL’ers P.K. Subban and Tyler Seguin point to a Doug Gilmour wraparound goal … even though it wasn’t associated with a Stanley Cup win.

You also might be intrigued to learn who mentioned Chris Pronger battling Dustin Byfuglien during the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, which player pointed to Teemu Selanne’s tearful Stanley Cup win, and some other moments. You may also notice a much younger Gary Bettman during certain moments.

It’s good stuff overall, so enjoy.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins’ Chara cements towering legacy with Stanley Cup Final run

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

While Boston sports fans have been spoiled by a wave of championships across several leagues, you could make a similar argument for Boston Bruins fans when it comes to watching great defensemen.

Most obviously, they had Bobby Orr in all of his statue-worthy glory. People who were lucky enough to be alive to see his too-brief prime still often rank him as the greatest player – not just defenseman – to ever lace up the skates, and it’s not outrageous to have that debate.

Plenty of other names come to mind, with Ray Bourque enjoying a transcendent, high-scoring career in his own right.

It’s time to place Zdeno Chara‘s name in that select group.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

For such a tall player, it makes sense to consider the highest heights of his career, of which there have been many:

  • Chara has served as captain of the Bruins since 2006-07, becoming one of just three European-born captains to win a Stanley Cup when Boston won it all in 2010-11.
  • This marks the Bruins’ third trip to a Stanley Cup Final during Chara’s time, as they also came within two wins (and suffered through 17 wild seconds) of another championship when they fell to Chicago in 2012-13.
  • Chara won the 2008-09 Norris Trophy, and was a finalist on five other occasions. Personally, I believe that Chara should have won at least one other Norris during his splendid career.
  • Overall, Chara’s played in 1,485 regular season games, and an impressive 175 playoff contests.
  • While Chara probably would’ve won another Norris or two if he was a more prolific scorer, he’s a guy who’s been able to contribute offensively, too, collecting 10 seasons of 10+ goals, including 19 in 2008-09.

The numbers can get pretty mind-boggling with Chara, yet the story becomes even bigger (almost larger than life?) when you zoom out.

Sustained greatness

As tough as it’s always been to miss a 6-foot-9 fitness freak, there have been moments in his career where his brilliance was overlooked, or at least misjudged. Infamously, the New York Islanders traded away Chara before they really knew what they had, but the Ottawa Senators also let him walk in free agency, possibly choosing Wade Redden over Chara.

Betting against Chara was clearly a bad idea, but then again, it’s easy to forget just how much of an anomaly he truly is.

Alongside Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton, Chara’s managed astounding longevity, as he remains a key part of the Bruins even at age 42.

Sure, Chara isn’t playing almost half of every Bruins playoff game like he did during his gaudy peak, but he’s still important. It’s almost unthinkable that Chara is basically breaking even at five-on-five (via Natural Stat Trick), especially since he’s still called upon in tough situations, as he saw plenty of John Tavares and Mitch Marner during the Maple Leafs series, for example.

Tall tales

Chara isn’t just an impossibly huge defenseman who can still, somehow, keep up enough with young skaters that he remains a useful player for Boston to this day. He’s also someone who probably set expectations too high for plenty of players who’d come after him.

Would players like Tyler Myers, Rasmus Ristolainen, or even Colton Parayko have gotten the same looks in today’s NHL if Chara didn’t show teams that a huge defensemen could find ways to keep up, whether that meant leveraging an outrageous reach or the natural intimidation factor that comes with such size? In breaking the mold, Chara also set a high bar: just about any skyscraper-type prospect could be compared to Chara, especially since “The Big Z” is considered a late bloomer.

While others show that bigger guys can still play (Parayko, Dustin Byfuglien, and so on), there’s really only one Zdeno Chara.

When you think about it, in a less media-saturated age, Chara would probably inspire Paul Bunyan-like stories.

After all, this isn’t just a large dude, it’s also the player whose 108.8 mph slapshot may not be matched for years. He’s scaled mountains. Chara seems to project the typical “Aw, shucks” hockey attitude, yet it’s clear that his ambition separates himself from the rest, and elevates him to a special place among Bruins legends.

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While Chara can be a punishing presence, and maybe blurs the line from time to time, he doesn’t have the mean streak of another elite, gigantic defenseman like Chris Pronger. “Gentle giant” might be too much, but Chara rarely resembles the bully he easily could be. To an extent, his towering presence does the bullying for him.

***

The Bruins have enjoyed a strong run of goalies as Tim Thomas passed the torch to Tuukka Rask, but who knows how successful those goalies would have been without the combination of Chara and Patrice Bergeron?

Adding young players like Charlie McAvoy and David Pastrnak breathed new life into this Bruins’ core, but remarkably enough, Chara remains a huge part of that foundation, and not just literally.

This run cements a thought that probably already should have been present: Chara belongs on the short list of Bruins legends. Winning another Stanley Cup would only make it tougher to deny — and it would also tie Chara with a certain No. 4.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: X-factors for Bruins, Blues

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

With all of this time off until Round 4 begins, PHT’s covering all the skirmishes of Bruins – Blues.

Of course, the danger in drilling deep into the numbers and potential matchups is that you might obsess over “on paper” and forget certain human factors that might swing things as much as a hot power play or a shutdown defensive performance.

Let’s consider some of the X-Factors of this series, and no, mutant superheroes are not involved … although Patrice Bergeron might have Wolverine’s healing powers.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The inevitable rest vs. rust question

Most of the time, I’d roll my eyes and make other dismissive gestures about rest vs. rust.

In many cases, rust is merely used as an easy way to explain a defeat that has more complex, existential explanations. After all, it’s easier to cope with thinking “Ah, if only we were on the top of our game” rather than considering the possibility that the other team just mopped the floor with your team.

The Bruins’ 11-day rest does kind of push the envelope, though.

Chiefly, will Tuukka Rask cool off after not tracking pucks in a playoff situation for almost two weeks? He was absolutely on fire, and all the scrimmages in the world can only do so much to prepare you for a Blues team that’s looked like a buzzsaw at times during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

All that tape

Maybe rest vs. rust should morph into three r’s, as you can add another factor: research.

While the Bruins didn’t know if they’d face the Blues or Sharks until Tuesday, May 21, Bruce Cassidy and his crew have had all that extra time to scout for weaknesses and tendencies regarding their opponents. If their video staff is really on point, you’d think that Boston may enjoy some subtle schematic advantage from getting extra opportunities to break down tape.

Interestingly, while rust might be a challenge for Bruins goalie Rask, that additional research could present a hurdle for rookie Blues netminder Jordan Binnington.

Rookies face challenges in adapting to the NHL, yet the reverse is worth noting: opponents haven’t had as many reps to expose weaknesses. That’s especially true in the exhausting grind of the postseason. If Binnington has some flaws to his game, the Bruins have had the rare luxury of gaining more opportunities to find those issues. For all we know, a few quirks could equal a tide-turning goal or two; maybe the Bruins can score on a wraparound where Jamie Benn and Roope Hintz barely didn’t in Game 7 of Round 2?

Health

All things considered, the Bruins and Blues seem as healthy as anyone can reasonably expect after three rugged rounds of playoff hockey.

Still, the best reasonable expectation for playing at this level into June is that you’re basically wearing so many ice packs it looks like you’re in a full suit of armor.

Frankly, teams aren’t particularly eager to divulge injury information, so we can only speculate about how healthy Zdeno Chara really will be if he can play in Game 1, and so on. So, yes, it’s interesting to see a sparse list of injuries beyond, say, Vince Dunn, but we really don’t know who’s playing at a level far below full-strength.

And, yes, 11 days provides a lot of time to heal — relatively speaking. Plenty of injuries suffered this time of year require longer than that, however, if they don’t demand surgery altogether. For two physical teams, the behind the scenes work of training staffs could be pivotal, even if they do everything they can to keep the rest of us oblivious about such ups and downs.

Bruins’ power play

Click here for a full breakdown of special teams, but it needed to be said: Boston’s power play is so powerful, it could swing the entire series.

Shenanigans

One thing that could bleed into the special teams discussion is if/when the teams get under each others’ skin.

Will Brad Marchand bait the Blues into taking foolish penalties, or might he shoot himself in the foot in trying to do just that? Does David Backes have some zingers regarding the team he once captained?

It seems like the Blues’ power play has gotten back on track, with at least one power-play goal in three straight games, and four during that span. So while Boston’s man advantage is the most dangerous, St. Louis could also make the Bruins pay if Marchand’s antics become a double-edged sword.

***

Ultimately, the 2019 Stanley Cup Final will come down to which players deliver, and if the coaches can put those players in the right situations to succeed. Rask and Binnington both have the capability to turn the series on its head with great play, too.

Don’t be surprised if the above X-factors make an impact, too, though. I mean, what’s really even the point if there are no shenanigans?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better goaltending?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Heading into the Stanley Cup Final, it’s pretty clear that the goaltenders on both sides are the front runners for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Both Tuukka Rask and Jordan Binnington have been terrific in the postseason, so don’t be surprised if goals are hard to come by for the Bruins and Blues.

But as good as both goalies have been, one of the two has to have an advantage. So let’s take a deeper look.

Boston Bruins: 

It’s nice to see Rask have so much success in the playoffs because the fans in Boston haven’t been easy on him this season or throughout his career. Yes, following Tim Thomas was never going to be easy, but Rask hasn’t been as bad as a lot of Bruins fans make him out to be. Whenever the Bruins have needed him most, he usually comes through. Now, he hasn’t delivered a Stanley Cup title but that’s not all on the goalie. And during this year’s playoffs, he’s been amazing.

In Game 6 against Toronto, he was outstanding. His team was facing elimination on the road and he managed to turn in such a strong performance to shut the Leafs down. That really set the tone for their Game 7 victory on home ice. After they went down 2-1 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second round, Rask became virtually unbeatable. He clearly got into the Blue Jackets shooters’ heads and the Columbus power play which was so good in the first round against Tampa, went ice cold because they couldn’t figure out how to beat Rask.

Since Game 5 of the first-round series against the Leafs, Rask has held the opposition to two goals or fewer in 11 of 13 games. That’s incredible. So if Boston scores two or three goals, they pretty much win 85 percent of the time.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The 32-year-old has a 12-5 record with a 1.84 goals-against-average and a .942 save percentage during the playoffs. He won’t be easy to beat for the Blues.

And something else we have to consider is goaltending depth. If something were to happen to Rask, the Bruins can turn to Jaroslav Halak, who had a terrific season and who’s gone on a long playoff run of his own. A one-two punch of Rask and Halak probably can’t be beat.

St. Louis Blues:

It’s amazing to think that Binnington spent a portion of last season with the Bruins’ farm team in Providence. It’s also incredible to think that he wasn’t even in the NHL at the start of this season. But Binnington is one of the major reasons why the Blues were able to go from last place on Jan. 2 to the Stanley Cup Final almost five months later.

The Blues have had terrific teams before, but goaltending has always been an issue for them. Roman Turek, Chris Osgood, Jake Allen and many others have all failed in an attempt to get the Blues their first championship. Binnington is a different story. Whether they win this series or not, general manager Doug Armstrong can confidently say that he’s finally found a goaltender that’s capable of carrying his team on long playoff runs. Yes, it’s a really small sample size, but it’s tough to imagine Binnington completely falling on his face in this series or even next season.

After the controversial ending to Game 3 of the Western Conference Final against San Jose, Binnington held the Sharks to two goals over the final three games of the series. That’s impressive against any team but even more so against a team with that kind of firepower.

The 25-year-old has 12-7-0 record with a 2.36 goals-against-average and a .914 save percentage this postseason. The Bruins may just be the biggest challenge he’s faced, but he’s already knocked out a great Jets team, a hungry Stars team and a talented Sharks team.

Again, for the purpose of this article, we have to check out the depth at the Blues’ disposal. Jake Allen has been a starter in the NHL, but he always seems to fall apart at the wrong time. In my mind, it’s impossible to give Allen the advantage over Halak.

Advantage: Boston Bruins

If both starting goalies were unavailable for this series, you’d have to give the edge to Boston. But if we put that aside, I still think Rask has to have a slight edge on Binnington. He’s been more dominant and he has the advantage of having Stanley Cup Final experience. There isn’t a big gap between the two players right now, but it’s impossible to overlook what Rask has done.

What do you think?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
Who has the better special teams?
X-factors for Bruins, Blues

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.