Had the night of June 12 gone differently, maybe NHL rivals would be looking to the Boston Bruins as the model to follow to win the Stanley Cup.
”We were one game away to change the narrative of how teams should be structured,” Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said.
The Bruins lost Game 7 of the final to the big, heavy St. Louis Blues, who bruised and battered their way to the Cup. In recent years, that might have led teams around the league to bulk up and try to follow the Blues’ lead – but that is unlikely.
The differences in recent champions – from fast and skilled to physical and punishing – illustrate how many different blueprints there are to win a championship in today’s NHL. They also show the importance of tailoring style of play to personnel and perfecting team chemistry.
”There’s so many different ways,” Blues playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Most of the players in the league, you’re not going to change. You change little things and make adjustments, but you’re not going to change the players that they are. So it’s finding your group of players and getting them to play the most effective way.”
Over the past decade, the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins won it all with speed, skill and talent. The Los Angeles Kings, Washington Capitals and Blues had plenty of skill, sure, but also used size to wear down opponents.
In a sport where whoever lifts the Cup tends to swing the pendulum on how to build a winner, it’s become more of a race to see which team can impose its will come playoff time.
”Every year is different,” said Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, who started in two finals and was the backup when Boston won the Cup in 2011. ”The way you build your team, everybody needs to be comfortable with that. You can win many different ways as long as your team’s comfortable playing that style of game.”
The Blues under coach Craig Berube got comfortable playing a defense-first style predicated on taking the body and winning series by attrition. O’Reilly concedes a lot has to go right to play that way.
The 2016 and 2017 Penguins battled attrition and overcame injuries to win the Cup. They weren’t the biggest team by any means but had the ingredients to go toe to toe with anyone when it mattered most.
”Playoffs is a whole different beast, and obviously there’s more hitting,” Chicago winger Alex DeBrincat said. ”Even if you’re a skilled team, you’re going to hit more.”
Jonathan Marchessault, whose Vegas Golden Knights lost to the Capitals in the 2018 final, said it’s important to ”stay true to the identity of your team” – whatever that is. Yet there remains a notion that when the regular season ends and the playoffs begin, the NHL trend toward speed and skill ruling the ice is no longer the case.
”It’s different hockey,” said Anze Kopitar, who won with the Kings in 2012 and 2014. ”In order to get into the playoffs, you’ve got to be fast and skilled and everything. Playoffs is a little bit different. You’ve got to wear teams down, and that’s what it is. It’s not as high-scoring as it is during the regular season. You still obviously have to have some grit and some hard-nosed guys that are willing to do that.”
Players talk about feeling like there’s less room to maneuver in the playoffs, like the surface shrinks and each decision must be made a half-second quicker. That does put a premium on turning up the toughness level.
”Even if the game is going skill and finesse, generally speaking, speed, skill, if you ask anyone around the league, going into a rink where you know it’s going to be a heavy style, there’s an intimidation factor there,” said Tom Wilson, who recorded 15 points, blocked 12 shots and dished out 100 hits during the Capitals’ Cup run. ”That’s why hockey’s great. That’s why it’s a physical sport. When you’re playing a team and you know they’re going to finish their checks, you know they’re going to be heavy on the puck, you know they’re going to battle, that’s important.”
Battling isn’t just about the Kings, Capitals or Blues finishing thundering checks and separating opposing players from the puck. It’s about gutting through injuries, winning races to the puck and dictating the tempo of the game to suit a certain style.
”You always have to stick to what gives you success throughout a regular season,” Krug said. ”We play a certain way where we can match up against any style. If you want to play fast, we’ll do it. You want to play heavy and in your face, we have the players that can do that as well, and we won’t shy away from it.”
The Blues’ blueprint could help a team like Winnipeg lift the Cup. Maybe the Tampa Bay Lightning can take a page from the Penguins’ playbook. Or perhaps the San Jose Sharks win with the depth on defense that earned the Blackhawks three championships in six years.
Based on the variety of champions and the parity of the NHL , which will be the last team standing and how they do it is anyone’s guess.
”The fun part about the year we won and this year is that anyone can win,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. ”Everyone can win, which is great.”