If we have learned anything about the St. Louis Blues through the first three full rounds of the playoffs it’s that they may just now be reaching the point in the Stanley Cup Final where they really start to find their game.
The Blues enter Game 5 against the Boston Bruins on Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC; Live Stream) tied at two games apiece thanks to their big Game 4 win on Monday night. Thursday’s game is obviously a pivotal one because it’s going to bring one of these teams to within one win of a championship.
All postseason the Blues have excelled in this exact position and have consistently gotten stronger in every series they have played.
So far they are 6-1 in Games 5 through 7 of each series, with the only loss in those games being a 2-1 defeat in Game 5 to the Dallas Stars in a game where the Blues still carried most of the play.
It is not just that they have won almost all of these late series games, it is that they have legitimately played better. It is a near perfect confluence of process and results.
For example, the table below shows the Blues’ 5-on-5 shot attempt (CF%), scoring chance (SC%), high-danger scoring chances (HDSC%) and goal differentials for Games 1-4 in each series versus their performance in Games 5-7 in each series. There is obviously a pretty drastic difference in the two performances.
One argument for this could centered around the Blues’ style of play where they try to wear teams down over the course of a series. They do have some bigger forwards and a bigger roster and can play a grinding game with an aggressive forecheck.
“Heavy hockey” if you wanted to call it that.
“We just try to play a grinding style of hockey,” said center Brayden Schenn. “It’s not fancy. It’s not pretty. But when we’re chipping pucks and we’re forechecking and we have a good F3 and we’re back checking hard, and it allows the D to have good gaps. We feel it’s a pretty good recipe and hopefully we can keep that going and be effective.”
Team captain and top defender Alex Pietrangelo echoed that same sentiment.
“I think we can see it throughout games and throughout series,” he said. “It’s tough minutes to play against our forward lines when they’re playing the way they can. Not necessarily anything to look for, you can see the momentum we create by our line changes in the offensive zone, we’re just using all four lines. If I was a defenseman, that would be tough to defend against.”
There is always a common theme and talking point whenever a team with size goes far in the playoffs where the conventional wisdom is that they wear teams down. But this is the NHL, it is still at its core a contact and collision sport where every game is going to have its share of physical play and hits. Everyone gets worn down to a degree the deeper they go in a series and the playoffs. Is an extra 10-15 hits per game spread out throughout the roster really going to speed that up? The argument against the mindset is that some of the most successful teams of the salary cap era (Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, the 2006-2009 Detroit Red Wings, and even the Tampa Bay Lightning team that went to three of the past five Eastern Conference Finals) did it with rosters that weren’t big or overly physical (especially at forward). Old school hockey folks love to romanticize the physical aspect of the game and the blood and guts reputation of playoff hockey. But the most consistently successful teams of this era didn’t really fit that mold. At all.
There is also this: simply writing it off as the Blues winning a battle of attrition every series and advancing because they are bigger and stronger and overpowering teams does a disservice to their coaching staff and the talent they have on their roster, all of which are excellent. Especially when trying to overpower the Bruins physically may have gotten them into some trouble earlier in the series when it came to their discipline.
From the moment Craig Berube took over behind the bench the team’s style changed. It used a more aggressive forecheck, they opened up more offensively, they immediately become better defensively in all phases.
The thing about playoff hockey is that coaching can tend to make more of a difference that it sometimes does in the regular season as teams spend more time game-planning for opponents and trying to find and exploit their weaknesses.
There is only so much advance game-planning you can do for one game out of 82 in the regular season when you usually only have 24-48 hours to prepare for a team after playing a completely different team with a completely different style. You are obviously doing some prep work, but not anywhere near as in-depth or detailed as you do in the playoffs.
In a best-of-seven series where you play the same team, with the same personnel, with the same playing style every night you are going to be more in tune with what they are trying to do and better able to find what they can do. And perhaps even more importantly, what they can’t do.
“I think we finally realize that we have to get to our game,” said forward Patrick Maroon. “When we get to our game, we’re a good hockey team. It takes us some time, I guess. Figure out how they play, how we need to play, what we need to do. How we can focus on it every shift, every night.”
“Yeah, I think it’s pretty common,” said Schenn when asked if there is a feeling out process the team has gone through early in each series.
“You kinda see what the team is gonna give you, how they’re gonna play, what adjustments they’re gonna make. I’m sure Boston’s gonna make some adjustments as well and so are we.”
The Blues are one of the bigger teams in the NHL and they do play what can probably be described as a “grinding” style. Even their biggest superstar, Vladimir Tarasenko, is such a force with the puck because of his strength and how difficult he is to knock over. They will play physical and they will hit your defense on the forecheck. But they also have a lot of talent throughout their roster and a coaching staff that has consistently done a great job adjusting all season.
Without the latter points, none of the former would matter or be much of a factor.
(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)
Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs Thursday on NBC at 8 p.m. ET (stream here).
MORE BLUES-BRUINS GAME 5:
• Bruins’ Chara to be game-time decision
• Report: Chara has broken jaw
• Blues vs. Bruins: Three keys to Game 5
• The Wraparound: Bruins need more, especially from second line
• Looking at Bruins’ potential defensive options