Through the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final the message has been the same for the St. Louis Blues, so much so that it is almost becoming annoying to keep typing it and saying it.
That message: Stop. Taking. Penalties.
Through the first three games of the series the Blues been completely unable to do that, having already tallied 34 penalty minutes heading into Monday’s Game 4 (8 p.m. ET, NBC; Live Stream).
This is not sitting well with the Blues for a number of reasons, from the fact the Bruins’ power play has already scored six goals, to the fact it is a drastic change from what we saw from the Blues for the entire season prior to this series.
During the regular season the Blues averaged just 7.35 penalty minutes per game, one of the lowest marks in the entire NHL.
In their three playoff series’ before the Final (against the Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars, and San Jose Sharks) they actually saw their average drop down to just 6.30 penalty minutes per game, which was the lowest per-game average of any team in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Everything we saw from the Blues this season was that they were one of the most disciplined teams in the NHL. They did a better job staying out of the penalty box than almost any other team in the league and they did not give their opponents an opportunity to burn them on the power play and change a game with bad penalties.
But in the three games against the Bruins the Blues have been averaging more than 11 penalty minutes per game and have already been shorthanded 14 times in the series. This has been a massive problem, not only because it has zapped the Blues of any momentum they have been able to build at times, but because the Bruins’ power play unit is still clicking at an all-time great success rate.
[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]
Coach Craig Berube was asked about what is leading to the increase in penalties, and while he acknowledged that his team could be more disciplined, he also made it clear he does not agree with all of the calls.
“Well, there’s a few things,” said Berube. “First of all we were the least penalized team in the league in the first three rounds, now all of a sudden we’ve taken 14 penalties in one series. So I don’t know. I don’t buy into all of that, to be honest with you. I think that we could definitely be more composed after the whistle. I think we’ve let some frustration get in there where we maybe do too much after the whistle. So we’ll clean that up, for sure. But like I said, we were the least penalized team in the league coming into this series. I don’t agree with all of the calls.”
When it was pointed out to Berube that the number of penalties usually decreases this late in the playoffs, he once again referenced the fact the Blues were the least penalized team through the first three rounds.
“Like I said, we were the least penalized team in the playoffs coming into this round,” he said. “Now all these penalties. Again, there’s nothing we can really do about what’s happened. Going forward, well, we can talk about being more disciplined, which we have, and playing between the whistles tomorrow. That can help.”
This is the reaction we should expect from a coach at this point in the season. There is acknowledgement that their team can be better, while there is also an attempt at publicly working the officials in an effort to try and buy some calls later in the series.
But none of this answers the question as to WHY the Blues are taking more penalties.
The answer to that question might be fairly simple: this is what tends happens when teams play the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
When looking at the 2018-19 regular season numbers, the Bruins were one of the most penalized teams in the NHL by averaging more than nine penalty minutes per game, the second highest total in the league.
Every single one of their opponents (the Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes, and now the Blues) were among the eight least penalized teams in the league, all averaging less than 7:40 in penalty time per game. Looking at those numbers and it would be easy to conclude ahead of time that it might be the Bruins that have to be more disciplined.
In each individual playoff series, the numbers have completely flipped.
While the Bruins have seen a dramatic drop in penalty minutes this postseason, every single one of their opponents has seen their penalty minutes increase when they play the Bruins.
This same trend has happened in pretty much every postseason series the Bruins have played over the past three seasons, where no matter how disciplined a team is during the regular season, they take more penalties in the playoffs against Boston, and no matter how many penalties the Bruins take during the regular season, they take less in the playoffs.
This is not some conspiracy where the Bruins are simply “getting all the calls” and getting favorable officiating in their favor, but rather a combination of factors that are taking place.
I have some theories as to what those factors are.
1. Good teams tend to draw more penalties. For all of the “big bad Bruins” mystique that still follows this team around, the Bruins are an extremely skilled team that dominates possession, plays with the puck, and has elite high-end players all over their lineup. They can beat you in transition, they score off the rush on the power play, they have some of the most productive players in the league on their roster. Guess what happens when skilled players dominate possession and play with the puck for significant stretches of games? Lesser talented teams and players have to cheat more and take penalties in an effort to stop them. Play against Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Patrice Bergeron for 20 minutes every night and you are probably going to take a penalty or two at some point.
2. Teams overthink it against the Bruins. This goes back to the whole “big bad Bruins” thing where teams get stuck in a mindset that a matchup with them is going to be physical, so they have to increase their own physicality, match the intensity, and try to impose their will (or whatever other cliche teams spout off in the playoffs). There is a fine line between between being physical at the right time and in the right situations, and being physical just for the sake of being physical. The former is sometimes a necessity, the latter can quickly lead to recklessness. Throw in the powder keg that is four-to-seven games against Brad Marchand and all of his shenanigans and you have the perfect storm for teams to just completely lose their composure as they chase hits and get caught up in post-whistle scrums. The Bruins seem to know how to walk this line and can do just enough to throw teams off their game and draw an extra penalty or two. Sometimes that is all you need to be the difference in a game. The Blues have a bigger team and tend to play a physical game, but there is no denying that in these first three games they have tried to do even more, both during play and after the whistles. It is hurting them.
3. Keeping things even. One thing that does tend to happen in playoff games is a large percentage of them seem to end with the penalty and power play distribution being fairly even. It is the whole “let them play” mindset where the on-ice officials do not want to be the ones responsible for deciding a game with a call or series of calls. This, of course, drives teams and fans bonkers because everyone just wants to see consistency and the calls made as they should be. Sometimes teams will take more penalties than their opponent, and that is okay. It is the way sports works. If you look at some of the individual series with the Bruins, their drastic decrease in penalties from the regular season combined with their opponents drastic increase has, in some cases, resulted in the penalty split being pretty close to even, just as it was in Rounds 2 and 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes. But that has not been the case in this series, and it wasn’t the case in Boston’s two Round 1 matchups against the Toronto Maple Leafs the past two seasons where there was a pretty big split, which again goes back to points 1) and 2).
Whether it is one of these factors are a combination of all three the Blues really need to be better if they are going to even this series and eventually take control of it. If they keep doing what they have done over the first three games they are going to quickly find themselves out of this, missing a prime opportunity to win the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup.
They have to be better when it comes to trying to slow down the Bruins’ offense.
They have to be better when it comes to avoiding the post-whistle scrums and taking extra runs at players.
They simply have to be better.
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.