Sean Kuraly

Bruins vs. Blues: Three keys to Game 7 of Stanley Cup Final

Leave a comment

There’s good news and bad news for hockey fans.

On one hand, you get to witness Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final between the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins. On the other hand, this is going to be the final meaningful game until October. So make sure you enjoy tonight’s game, because the off-season begins tomorrow.

Everything either team has done before now is absolutely meaningless if they don’t come away with a win tonight. The Blues and Bruins will have to put together their best effort if they’re going to win it all at TD Garden tonight.

What specific things do these two teams have to do to win? Let’s take a look.

• Depth players have to chip in

It would be shocking to see a wide-open Game 7 tonight. Expect to see both teams play a physical, tight-checking game, because every mistake will be magnified. That means that the star forwards on either team may not have much room to operate throughout the game. So, it might be up to some of the depth players on either side to decide the result tonight.

By now, you may have heard that Boston has 19 different scorers in these Stanley Cup Playoffs. The depth that they’ve displayed since the start of the postseason has been second-to-none. Can they squeeze a little more production out of Sean Kuraly, Joakim Nordstrom or Noel Acciari?

The Blues have had a strong fourth line of their own, and they’ll be getting Ivan Barbashev back after he was suspended for Game 6. Barbashev, Oskar Sundqvist and Alex Steen have been really good on the fourth line for the Blues, who have also received depth contributions from guys like Sammy Blais and Zach Sanford throughout this series.

• Game-6 Binnington can’t make another appearance 

Obviously, both teams need to make sure that their goalies don’t cost them the game, but the Blues have to make sure Jordan Binnington turns in a better performance than he did in Game 6 on Sunday night. Binnington has found a way to bounce back a number of times since taking over as the team’s starting netminder, so there’s no real reason to doubt him heading into the biggest game in franchise history.

As for Tuukka Rask, it would be shocking to see him drop the ball tonight. He’s clearly the front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy right now, and he’s come up huge whenever the Bruins have needed a big result. Down 3-2 in the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was there in Game 6 and 7. Down 2-1 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second round, he was there, again. Rask has been in the zone all postseason and expecting anything else in Game 7 would be silly, right?

• Walk that fine line

It’s no secret that both teams need to play with a physical edge to be successful. They’re both loaded with skill, but that extra grit is what has carried them this far. That should continue to be the case on Wednesday night, especially for a Blues team that likes to keep the game simple when they’re on the road.

Here’s the issue: you have to be able to play that physical style without taking penalties. Neither team can afford to spend much time playing shorthanded in Game 7. It’s just too risky of a proposition. Yes, both teams have been able to generate goals or scoring chances while shorthanded at different points of the series, but they can’t take that gamble with everything on the line. Basically, unless it’s a puck-over-glass penalty or something that prevents a goal from happening, you can’t afford to sit in the box tonight.

So play with an edge. Just make sure you don’t force the officials to call a penalty.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Wraparound: Bruins need more, especially from second line

Getty Images

The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

With a few exceptions, namely Tuukka Rask, Sean Kuraly and Charlie Coyle, the Boston Bruins could use a lot more from some of their biggest names heading into a pivot Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

Rask has seen a pile of shots again. Coyle has scored in three straight games and is now tied for the team lead in goals with Patrice Bergeron at nine. And Kuraly? Well, he’s a welcomed addition to a fourth line, if we’re being fair, that’s been as solid as they come in the playoffs.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

As hockey is a team game and it’s often the sum of the parts that get the job done, the Bruins need better from some of their best.

We’ll start on the second line with Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci and David Backes.

The line has been a bit of a ghost so far in this series with no goals thus far. DeBrusk has two points in the series – his only points in the last 6 games – while Krejci (four games) and Backes (six games) are both on point droughts.

“We got to sit down with them, obviously,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “They got to change the way they’re playing. It hasn’t worked so far to generate offense… We’re going to have to revisit it, sell some different ideas of how they can generate offense.”

The top line Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, meanwhile, need another dominant game, the type where they’re unstoppable and the Bruins are, thus, unbeatable.

We saw some of that in Game 3, where they combined for five points. It’d be better to see it 5-on-5, however. Game 3 sort of skews all the numbers given the lethality of their power play in that one.

A game where they produce in the seven to 10 point range as a line would be a welcomed sight for Boston fans.

The good news for Boston is they get to play Game 5 (and 7, if it’s needed) at TD Garden, where they’ve won seven of 11 in these playoffs.

NHL PR has a couple of stats regarding the Bruins and playing at home.

  • “The Perfection Line” of Bergeron (4-2—6),  Marchand (3-6—9) and Pastrnak (3-4—7) have accounted for more than one-quarter of Boston’s tallies through 11 home games this postseason (10 of 37; 27.0%).
  • Four Boston players are averaging at least one point per game following a loss this postseason: Marchand (4-6—10 in 6 GP), Pastrnak (4-4—8 in 6 GP), Bergeron (4-4—8 in 6 GP) and Torey Krug (2-6—8 in 6 GP).

Another good omen is Tuukka Rask’s ability to bounce back in these playoffs.

Like Jordan Binnington 200 feet the other way, Rask ups the ante following a loss. He’s 5-1 with a 2.01 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage in the game after a loss.

A couple of adjustments might just prevent one team from winning two straight for the first time in this series.

MORE BLUES-BRUINS:


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleckW

Why Blues’ discipline has disappeared in Stanley Cup Final

Getty
3 Comments

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.

MORE BLUES-BRUINS:
The Wraparound: Blues look to flip the page
Blues vs. Bruins: Three keys to Game 4 of Stanley Cup Final
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe watch entering Game 4
Stanley Cup Final: Sean Kuraly breaking through for Bruins
Vince Dunn back in Blues’ lineup

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe watch entering Game 4

Getty

Now that the Stanley Cup Final is reaching its halfway point it is time for our weekly look at the race for the Conn Smythe Trophy.

After their convincing 7-2 win in Game 3, the Boston Bruins enter Monday’s Game 4 (8 p.m. ET, NBC; Live Stream) with a 2-1 lead in the series and a chance to take complete control before it shifts back to Boston later this week. A win on Monday would give the Bruins a commanding 3-1 series lead, something that only one team has ever squandered in the history of the Stanley Cup Final (just as a reminder, it was complete madness took an insane sequence of events for that to happen). So, obviously, Monday’s game is pretty significant.

With the Bruins holding the lead in the series (as of this publication) they have most of the top leaders in the race.

But the Blues still have their contenders, too, if they are able to come back and win.

Let’s take a look at where the rankings currently stand.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins. He was the favorite entering the series and nothing has really changed through the first three games to knock him out of that spot. Rask has played every minute of the playoffs for the Bruins and is still maintaining a .939 save percentage through the first 20 games. It is only the seventh different time in NHL history that a goalie has played in at least 20 playoff games and had a save percentage higher than .935. It is the second time that Rask has done it, making him the only goalie in NHL history to have that claim.

2. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. He hasn’t been as dominant through the first three games as he was in the earlier rounds, but a point-per-game average while playing a Stanley Cup Finalist is no small accomplishment. He has a strong chance to finish the playoffs as the leading scorer in the league. In almost any other year that would make him a slam-dunk winner for the Conn Smythe if his team wins. Only reason he is not the favorite right now is because his team’s goalie is having an historically good postseason.

3. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues. He is not going to finish with the best overall numbers in the playoffs, and he may not even be the leading scorer on the Blues, but if they manage to come back in this series and win three of the next four games Tarasenko is probably going to play a huge role. Given that he has a point in eight of the past nine games and had an eight-game point streak that ran throughout the entire Western Conference Final and the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final he is going to stand out. Recency bias is a thing, and if you have your best and most productive games in the final two rounds, you are probably going to get the award if your team ends up winning.

4. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins. After a quiet start to the Stanley Cup Final Bergeron and his line finally erupted in Game 3. He has two three-point performances in the past four games and is still a force all over the ice despite a little bit of a slump in Games 1 and 2. The Bruins’ power play has been one of their biggest assets in the playoffs and nobody has done more to drive that than Bergeron with a league-leading seven power play goals. Before this season he had just seven postseason power play goals in his entire career.

5. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins. His hit in Game 1 will be replayed on Bruins highlight reels for years to come, especially if they end up winning the series, but that is not what brings him into the Conn Smythe race. It’s the fact he is one of the biggest game-changers the Bruins have on the blue line. In his 346 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time this postseason he is cruising along with a 55 percent Corsi rating while the Bruins are outscoring their opponents by a 14-8 margin. Individually, he is up to 16 total points (two goals, and a league leading 14 assists) in 20 games and has three multi-point games. That includes a four-point effort (the first ever for a Bruins defender in Stanley Cup Final history) in their Game 3 win on Saturday night. 

6. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues. He was going to cool off eventually because let’s face it, no one consistently scores on a quarter of their shots for an extended period of time. But he is still the Blues’ leading goal-scorer and point-producer and has single-handedly been the difference between winning and losing in at least three games for the Blues this postseason.

More Blues-Bruins Game 4

The Wraparound: Blues look to flip the page
Blues vs. Bruins: Three keys to Game 4 of Stanley Cup Final
Stanley Cup Final: Sean Kuraly breaking through for Bruins

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.

Stanley Cup Final: Kuraly breaking through for Bruins

3 Comments

If you handed out an MVP trophy for the best player of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final (rather than the full postseason, with the Conn Smythe), then Sean Kuraly would be the unlikely frontrunner for the Boston Bruins.

Kuraly’s been crucial in the Bruins taking a 2-1 series lead through the first three games against the St. Louis Blues, scoring two goals (both of Boston’s game-winners) and two assists.

Even for those of us who targeted Kuraly as a potential surprise breakthrough candidate really didn’t see this coming.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In a way, Kuraly’s getting all the bounces he wasn’t enjoying during most of this postseason, all at once. His two goals during the past three games came on just five shots on goal, good for a 40 shooting percentage. Kuraly’s 3-0 goal from Game 3 qualifies as a head’s up play, but there was also some luck involved in catching Jordan Binnington by surprise with such a quick release (and maybe partial screen?), not to mention the luck of surviving the offside review.

But, again, there’s an argument that Kuraly has been “due.”

Through the first 13 games of his postseason run – Kuraly missed some time due to hand surgery – Kuraly fired 38 shots on goal, matching Blues forwards Ryan O'Reilly, Oskar Sundqvist, and Brayden Schenn, who generated that many in 19 games (and more average ice time, most glaringly for ROR and Schenn). Even if you chalk up some of that shot volume to quantity over quality, Kuraly had been unlucky, only scoring two goals and five points, giving him just a 5.3 shooting percentage.

Delightfully, the deeper you dig into Kuraly’s stats, the more it looks like the Bruins unearthed another gem.

Any scoring from Kuraly should be considered gravy, because he’s really been asked to do a lot of the dirty work for the Bruins.

So far during the postseason, Kuraly’s begun an absurd 89 percent of his even-strength shifts in the defensive zone. (According to Natural Stat Trick, he’s had 48 defensive zone starts, 68 in the neutral zone, and just seven in the offensive zone.)

Considering his heavy workload, it’s impressive that Kuraly’s largely broken even in the possession game, and the Bruins have actually generated more high-danger chances for (35) than against (32) at even-strength with Kuraly on the ice.

That’s … pretty remarkable, especially for a nominal “fourth-liner.”

One of Kuraly’s defining skills is his speed. As The Point noted heading into his postseason debut, Kuraly uses his skating to be an absolute beast in transition, which is likely part of the reason that Bruce Cassidy loves deploying him in such heavy defensive assignments.

Cassidy also singled out Kuraly as a player who deserved more recognition in April:

Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final likely ranks as the high point for Kuraly, along with his linemates Joakim Nordstrom and Noel Acciari.

Not only did Kuraly score a gritty game-winning goal and set up Connor Clifton with a tremendous pass, but that trio drew the occasional assignment against the Blues’ top line of Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn, and Jaden Schwartz. It says a lot about Kuraly’s line – and Cassidy’s confidence in that line – that they got that opportunity, and didn’t just earn a draw, but occasionally actually won the matchup against Tarasenko’s group.

Looking forward, it’s tough to tell if Kuraly might be a more regular scorer.

The 26-year-old managed eight goals and 21 points in 71 regular-season games, managing a solid 134 SOG considering his modest TOI average of 13:46 per game, but his shooting percentage was low at six percent. Kuraly’s career shooting percentage is even lower at 5 percent, and the sample size isn’t tiny at 154 games. It’s fair to wonder if Kuraly may be lacking a bit as a shooter.

Of course, opportunity plays into the discussion.

Kuraly saw his ice time climb significantly once January rolled around, a lot like Sundqvist with the Blues, he’s seen a prominent role during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Kuraly’s averaging 15:37 TOI per game, fifth-most among Bruins forwards, ahead of Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, and Danton Heinen.

The Bruins probably aren’t sweating the question of whether Kuraly can ascend in the lineup, or if he’ll merely remain a really, really good depth player.

That’s because Kuraly has the contract that figures to give Boston a competitive advantage. Via Cap Friendly, Kuraly’s cap hit comes in at a measly $1.275 million, and it runs through 2020-21, with no sign of performance bonuses.

Boston’s shown an uncanny knack for supplementing top players like Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron with smart late first-rounders like David Pastrnak, and hidden gems such as undrafted Torey Krug. By getting Kuraly in the Martin Jones trade, and locking him up to an extremely cheap contract, the Bruins seem to have struck it rich again with Kuraly.

If he keeps scoring, even better, but the Bruins will gladly take the version of Kuraly who was quietly winning tough matches for them.

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

BREAKING DOWN BLUES-BRUINS GAME 3:
Bruins blast Blues, take 2-1 lead in Stanley Cup Final
Blues special teams continue to be sour note 
Berube keeping the faith in Binnington after rough Game 3

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.