BOSTON (AP) — Bruce Cassidy didn’t mince words or hide behind the secrecy of playoff hockey.
The Boston Bruins coach telegraphed the most important matchup of the Stanley Cup Final on the morning of Game 1. As long as he had the last change and the ability to dictate matchups, his top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak would play against the St. Louis Blues’ red-hot line of Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko.
In the chess match that is every playoff series, Cassidy’s first move put Boston down two goals in Game 1. His quick thinking on pulling the plug on that experiment helped the Bruins come back to win 4-2 Monday night with fourth-line forward Sean Kuraly and third-pairing defenseman Connor Clifton the unlikely heroes. Cassidy at times put his fourth line of Kuraly, Joakim Nordstrom and Noel Acciari against the Schenn line with great success.
Almost 80% of teams that win Game 1 have gone on to win the Cup, but how Cassidy, Blues coach Craig Berube and their teams adjust will have a say in that. Game 2 is Wednesday night.
”We’ve used Kuraly’s line all year against good lines and we decided to go that route,” Cassidy said. ”It worked out for us tonight and we’ll re-evaluate it on Wednesday.”
With so much talent, size and skill on each side, there are limitless combinations Cassidy and Berube can tinker with. Depth and some good luck with health got these teams here, and both will be tested in a bruising, stick-snapping, helmetless-hitting series.
Boston has the lead. It’s Berube’s turn to respond.
”They’re going to do good things,” Berube said. ”They’re a good team and they’re going to force us into bad situations and things like that, but we need more than we gave tonight.”
The Blues have to be satisfied with how they limited Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak’s scoring chances at even strength, giving up only an empty netter to Marchand. Even the Bruins’ power-play goal came with the second unit on the ice. But the Blues know they won’t be able to hold down Boston’s top line forever, so the onus is on defensemen like Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester to keep this up.
And the Bruins’ biggest stars understand that despite the contributions from unlikely sources, they need to produce.
”We know we have to get better as a line,” Pastrnak said.
If Berube prefers power against power, which contributed to goals by Schenn and Tarasenko, he also might need to make some changes to tackle Boston’s ability to get goals from its entire lineup.
Kuraly had just two goals in the playoffs coming in and Clifton one, but after the Bruins tilted the ice and dominated from the second minute of the second period on, it seemed a matter of time until goaltender Jordan Binnington cracked.
Binnington was under siege as the Bruins outshot the Blues 30-12 in the final two periods. After stopping 83 of the 85 shots he faced in Games 5 and 6 of the Western Conference final and the first period Monday, he will need to be locked in as the series goes on.
”Stuff’s going to happen, you got to handle it,’ Binnington said. ”We’ll regroup and prepare for the next game.”
Berube didn’t blame Binnington and pointed to turnovers as the culprit. Add five penalties that gave the Bruins’ playoff-leading power play too many chances, and the Blues have plenty to improve on.
”I think we can be even better,” winger David Perron. ”We’re going to have to be. We’ve shown that the other series – we got better and better as the series went on every game.”
The thing is, the Bruins likely will, too.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno