Carl Gunnarsson

Top-five firsts of 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs

The 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs have been full of outstanding moments, shocking upsets, incredible storylines, and great performances.

We have also seen our share of “firsts” for a handful of teams and individual players.

Among them: The St. Louis Blues winning their first ever Stanley Cup Final game (Game 2 in Boston) as they attempt to win their first ever championship.

Their run has also seen some unlikely heroes with defenders Robert Bortuzzo and Carl Gunnarsson scoring their first ever career postseason goals (both game-winners, including Gunnarsson’s Game 2 overtime winner against the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Both goals make the list of top-five firsts in this year’s playoffs, alongside Cale Makar, Barry Trotz and the New York Islanders, and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Check them all in the video above.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Lineup shuffling benefits Blues in Stanley Cup Final

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Had Oskar Sundqvist not gotten suspended and Robert Thomas ruled out with a nagging injury, Zach Sanford might never have gotten a chance to show his stuff on hockey’s biggest stage.

If Vince Dunn not taken a puck to the mouth during the last round, Robert Bortuzzo might not have had the chance to score a key goal in the Stanley Cup Final.

This is the magic of the St. Louis Blues in the playoffs and even more specifically their series against the Boston Bruins. They’ve dressed a lottery ball machine amount of lineup combinations this postseason and because of suspensions and injuries in the final will have their sixth different lineup in six games.

Instead of interrupting continuity that’s usually paramount in the playoffs, the Blues’ game of musical jerseys with players in and out of the lineup has given them a variety of looks for the Bruins to contend with and contributed to St. Louis being on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup.

”You never want to see guys get suspended or go down with an injury,” forward Patrick Maroon said Saturday. ”But Zach Sanford, Sammy Blais and Robby Fabbri have done a really good job filling in. Thomas was playing until he went out. They’ve been here all year, and they know what it takes to win.”

Maroon is one of only 12 skaters plus goaltender Jordan Binnington to play in all 24 of St. Louis’ playoff games so far. That number will dip to 11 with Ivan Barbashev suspended and the very real possibility Thomas is ready to return after missing the past four games with what’s believed to be a hand/wrist injury.

Injury attrition can take its toll this time of year, something the San Jose Sharks found out when the Blues eliminated them without Erik Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl. The Blues have kept on chugging through the injuries and gotten impressive performances from players shuffling in and out of the lineup like Bortuzzo or returning off a long layoff like Sanford and Fabbri.

Barbashev isn’t available for Game 6, and coach Craig Berube said other decisions will be made closer to puck drop. Top-line forward Vladimir Tarasenko and bottom-six grinder Alex Steen are expected to play after missing practice for maintenance, but there are other questions about who’s in and out and St. Louis won’t have much of a drop-off either way.

”We have good depth, which is very important on the back end and up front,” Berube said. ”A guy like Sanford coming in and doing a good job for us after being out for some time, and Sammy Blais, just different guys. It’s really important.”

Sanford has had some significant jump in his legs the past three games after sitting out six weeks as a healthy scratch. Dunn showed little rust from missing almost three weeks before getting back in for Game 4.

And there has been no pouting from guys like Bortuzzo and fellow defenseman Joel Edmundson trading places on the ice and in the press box.

”There’s been different circumstances for different things,” Bortuzzo said. ”You’re going to get in there and you’re going to be excited to play. You’re going to be refreshed regardless of what’s going on.”

The Blues had already done a strong job in the first three rounds of wearing down opponents as series dragged on, and they’re in the process of doing the same to Boston. They play the same style, but the Bruins never seeing the same St. Louis team twice in a playoff series that usually breeds familiarity and contempt makes it even more difficult to prepare.

Boston could dress its same lineup from Game 5 because forward Noel Acciari is expected to play after leaving in the third period Thursday and Marcus Johansson had no lingering effects from the hit on him Barbashev was suspended for.

While the Bruins promoted Johansson to their top power-play unit to get that unit going, the Blues have to adjust without Barbashev, who’s a key penalty killer.

”He’s physical for us,” forward Brayden Schenn said. ”He does a good job on the PK, scoring some goals. We can’t worry about him being out. You’ve got to worry about someone else stepping up, stepping in and filling his role.

That has been key to the Blues’ run the past two months, in large part because of injuries and Berube shaking things up with coach’s decisions for performance. The suspensions of Sundqvist and now Barbashev forced Berube’s hand even more, but it hasn’t led the Blues to abandon their bruising approach.

”If that was a thing, then we’d have slowed down on our physical game and that’s not us,” Carl Gunnarsson said. ”I think we’ve just got to keep on going, just going to keep it clean and keep doing what we’re doing.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Stanley Cup Final: Vince Dunn back in Blues’ lineup for Game 4

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ST. LOUIS — St. Louis Blues head coach Craig Berube is making some changes for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final Monday night (8 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream) against the Boston Bruins.

Zach Sanford will be up on the second line back with Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron. Robby Fabbri will be scratched with Oskar Sundqvist back from suspension and Sammy Blais will be with Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon.

“I thought that was a real good line last game for us,” said Berube. “I thought [Sanford] was strong on the puck. He’s got good hands, he’s got real good puck skills and I thought that he had composure with the puck and he moved his feet and he was strong on it.”

The big return will be on the blue line where Vince Dunn will be back after a six-game absence taking the place of Robert Bortuzzo. Dunn took a puck to the mouth in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final and will be on a third pairing with Carl Gunnarsson. The Blues will get a boost in moving the puck, an area that needs improvement, with the 22-year-old’s return.

“He moves the puck as good as anybody on our team from our on end out transition-wise,” said Berube. “Dunn has the ability of doing high-end things in the offensive zone sometimes. Not all the time, but there’s just times where he can do things that wow you a little bit and make a great play, or score a goal from nothing. He can make something from nothing a lot of time in those areas.”

It hasn’t been an easy three weeks for Dunn, who recorded seven points in 16 playoff games prior to the injury. He currently has a mouth full of wires and has been consuming a little food and a lot of shakes to maintain weight.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“It feels like I have a mouthguard in at all times,” Dunn said Monday. “It’s not the easiest to be eating things. But other than that, I can’t really complain. I’m here in the finals, it’s very special to me, it’s very special to all of us.”

The Blues have had a difficult time transitioning out of their own zone and stopping the Bruins from maintaining possession and creating high-danger scoring chances. Dunn’s ability on the blue line to move the puck quickly and successfully out of the defensive zone will be a huge addition as they face the prospect of a 3-1 deficit.

 “We need to just move the puck up when the play’s there — not over-handle it, not overthink things — just make the play that’s in front of you,” Dunn said. “Our forwards have done a great job on the walls all season. We need to continue to trust them to be able to break the puck out, for our centers to support that underneath.

“I think the key to our game is to get out of our end, get through the neutral zone and get into the forecheck. I think our forwards are very good at cycling the puck and establishing a forecheck early. The faster we can do that I think the faster we’ll get to our game.”

Game 4 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs on NBC at 8 p.m. ET on Monday (stream here).

MORE BLUES-BRUINS:
Berube keeping the faith in Binnington after rough Game 3
Stanley Cup photos inside Bruins’ dressing room serve as inspiration
Conn Smythe Power Rankings entering Game 4
Fan runs 28 miles with giant Blues flag to attend Game 3

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Blues vs. Bruins: Three keys to Game 3 of Stanley Cup Final

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When Carl Gunnarsson scored at the 3:51 mark of overtime in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night, he gave the St. Louis Blues their first ever Stanley Cup Final win.

They return home on Saturday night with a chance to take the lead in the series in Game 3 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN; Live Stream) when they host the Boston Bruins.

So far it has been a tough, physical series and there is no indication that is going to change on Saturday night. Both teams have had stretches where they have carried the play, and given that the Blues are returning home to play in what should be a charged up environment the Bruins should be prepared to weather an early storm.

Here are the three keys for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

• Discipline … again

This has been the talking point for the Blues so far in the series, and we have to keep mentioning it because it keeps becoming a factor.

Through the first two games the Blues have already been shorthanded 10 times (to only five times for the Bruins) and have already surrendered a pair of power play goals. The Blues’ inability to stay out of the penalty box helped crush any momentum they had built early in Game 1, and then nearly got them into trouble in Game 2.

The Bruins’ power play has been a nearly unstoppable force throughout the postseason, converting on more than 31 percent of their chances. That is one of the highest marks in the history of the league and it has helped drive the team’s offense.

The Blues can not keep giving that unit chances to take over a game because it has shown time and time again this postseason that it can do just that. If the Blues can keep this a 5-on-5 game they have to like their chances. But if they can not help themselves when it comes to taking penalties they run the risk of losing a huge opportunity to win their first ever championship.

It is pretty clear that this series has a physical tone to it, and the Blues obviously want to try and impose that on the Bruins, but there has to be a line between playing physical and playing reckless.

During the first two games the Blues have had a difficult time walking that line.

• Bruins’ top line

If there is a concern early on for the Bruins it might just how quiet their top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak has been over the first two games. So far they have managed just one empty-net goal while also getting outscored, outshot, and outchanced when going head-to-head against the Blues’ top line that is being driven by an incredible hot streak from Vladimir Tarasenko.

They have enough of a track record — both individually and as a group — that they should be expected to snap out of this little funk because it is awfully hard to imagine them having three consecutive off games. But sometimes slumps happen to even the very best players, and if one starts to get away from you early in a best-of-seven series that could be the difference between winning and losing the whole thing.

“March, Pasta, Berge and Krej are all first for scoring, so they’ve done it in the Playoffs,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said on Thursday. “Not maybe in these two games, it’s short sample size, but that’s what we’re looking for. The better players perform, better chance of winning. I expect they’ll be better in St. Louis offensively. We’ll go from there.”

The quartet of Marchand, Bergeron, Pastrnak, and Krejci has combined to score 27 of the Bruins’ 63 goals so far in the playoffs, but in the first two games of the series they have managed only the aforementioned Marchand empty-netter, while Pastrnak (an assist) is the only one that has contributed to another goal.

Depth scoring is an essential ingredient to winning, but the Bruins are still going to need their top players to find the back of the net, especially if the Blues’ top line — and especially Tarasenko — continues to play the way it has.

• Both teams missing key depth players

It is all the result of one play in Game 2.

The Bruins will find themselves playing without defender Matt Grzelcyk after he was injured on a hit by Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist early in Game 2. Grzelcyk isn’t one of the stars on this Bruins roster but he has become an extremely valuable player due to his ability to move the puck and help feed the team’s transition game. They missed that element after he exited Game 2 and were unable to consistently contend with the Blues’ aggressive forecheck.

It could be an issue in Game 3 and beyond if he remains sidelined.

He will be replaced by veteran defender John Moore. It is not only a drop off in terms of what to expect out of that spot on the third-pairing, but it also puts more pressure on Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug to make more of an impact because they are only two other defenders on the roster that can excel when it comes to moving the puck.

That play also resulted in Sundqvist being suspended for Saturday’s game, putting a pretty significant dent in the Blues’ depth.

Sundqvist has been a great find for the Blues on their fourth line and had a breakout 2018-19 regular season performance that has carried over to the playoffs where he has had a knack for scoring some big goals while also playing a sound defensive game. But his hit on Grzelcyk was a reckless one and was the second time in the first two games that he took a bad penalty by delivering a bad hit from behind.

The first one cost the Blues in Game 1 when McAvoy responded on the ensuing power play with a game-tying goal.

The second one cost them by removing a key depth player (Sundqvist himself) out of the lineup for Game 3.

Along with Sundqvist, the Blues will once again be without rookie forward Robert Thomas.

Blues-Bruins Game 3 is Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET from Enterprise Center on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

More Blues-Bruins Game 3:
The Wraparound: Stanley Cup Final returns to St. Louis
Blues’ Oskar Sundqvist suspended
Blues’ Tarasenko sniping at Ovechkin-like level
Grzelcyk’s absence could be significant for Bruins
Blues’ top line getting best of Bruins’ top line so far

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blues prepared for emotional return home in Game 3

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ST. LOUIS — It’s been a long time since St. Louis has hosted a Stanley Cup Final game — 17,924 days as of Saturday. It’s been so long that one of the two linesmen for their last home game in the NHL’s final playoff round — Game 2 in 1970 — was Neil Armstrong, father of Blues general manager Doug, who was only five years old at the time.

That 49-year wait will finally end on Saturday night in Game 3 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; livestream) when the Blues host the Boston Bruins inside Enterprise Center with the series tied at one.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to describe what [the atmosphere is] going to be like,” said Blues forward Ryan O’Reilly, who’s in his first season with the team. “But from what I’ve seen I’ve been very impressed. And we’re excited to [play at] home to show what this town’s about.”

Scanning Twitter or YouTube late Wednesday night after Carl Gunnarsson’s overtime winner and you’ll see the reaction videos from the various watch parties around St. Louis, including one inside a sold-out Enterprise Center. The players noticed those scenes and appreciate just how much their run to the Cup Final has meant to the city.

Three years after losing the Rams to Los Angeles and with the Cardinals floundering under .500 and not having made the playoffs since 2015, it’s the Blues’ time to shine.

“This city’s been waiting for something special for so many years,” said native St. Louisan Patrick Maroon. “People don’t know what a great sports town this really is. This is something special and it just proves people wrong that this is the big time sports town.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The anticipation in the city has been building and grew even more after the Blues evened the series in dramatic fashion in Game 2. The fans will be loud, the building will be rocking, and the players are ready to go. But with discipline problems in the first two games leading to 10 power plays for the Bruins, head coach Craig Berube knows that the excitement in his players must be harnessed.

“We’re going to have energy, but we’ve got to make sure we keep our emotions in check, too,” Berube said. “That’s a big thing. We don’t want to be going to the penalty box and being overemotional about things. We’ve got to keep them in check and be pretty even-keeled out there but at the same time have emotion in your game but keep it at a good level.”

While the Blues’ penalty kill has killed off eight of those 10 man advantages, the penalty parade has slowed momentum at times, most notably in Game 1.

“It’s the same thing. You’ve got to keep your emotions in check and stay disciplined,” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo. “Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s happened to us the last couple of games here so we have to make sure coming home to control those emotions because we can see what they do on the power play.”

The last four months have been unforgettable for the Blues and their fans. At the start of 2019 they were thinking about the NHL Draft Lottery and how the core of the team could be ripped apart due to their poor start to the season. But then the turnaround happened and now they’re three wins away from winning the Cup. It’s an experience that the players have enjoyed sharing with fans helping to bring the city together.

“Just to be here with this opportunity is cool. We’re excited for everyone,” said O’Reilly. “We’re hopefully going to have a good game and obviously give them our best.”

Blues-Bruins Game 3 is Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET from Enterprise Center on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.