Torey Krug

PHT Power Rankings: Win or lose the Conn Smythe should belong to Rask

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This much should be obvious: If the Boston Bruins win Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream) starting goalie Tuukka Rask is going to be the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.

If that situation plays out, it is simply going to be his award.

Brad Marchand has been great. Patrice Bergeron has been outstanding. Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy have carried the defense. Charlie Coyle has turned out to be a huge trade deadline pickup. All of them would be a worthy contender (or winner) in any other season. But for as good as they have all been none of them have played a bigger role in the Bruins’ postseason success than Rask, and he has done it from the very beginning of the playoffs with a consistency and level of dominance that should have erased any doubts his harshest critics may have ever had about him as a big-game goalie.

He is the biggest reason the Bruins have reached this point and the single biggest reason the St. Louis Blues have not already won their first Stanley Cup.

His performance this postseason is as good as we have ever seen from a goalie, highlighted by a .939 save percentage that ranks among the NHL’s all-time best.

He is just the fifth different goalie in NHL history to play in at least 20 playoff games and have a save percentage higher than .935, and he is the only goalie that has done it twice.

In his 23 appearances this season he has recorded a save percentage below .912 just five times. He has had zero games with a save percentage below .900. Just for context on that, every other goalie this postseason has had at least one such, while 15 different goalies had at least two.

His Stanley Cup Final counterpart, St. Louis’ Jordan Binnington, has had eight such games.

His save percentages by series have been .928, .948, .956, and .924.

No matter the metric, whether it is in any one individual game or the postseason as a whole, he has been sensational.

So sensational that the Conn Smythe Trophy should probably be his whether the Bruins win Game 7 or not.

It is not completely unheard of for a member of the losing team to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as it has happened five times in NHL history with Detroit’s Roger Crozier (1966), St. Louis’ Glenn Hall (1968), Philadelphia’s Reggie Leach (1976) and Ron Hextall (1987), and Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere (2003) all doing it. It is obviously extremely difficult to do, but it can happen when all of the right circumstances are in place.

It usually involves a goalie (as four of the previous ones were) putting together an incredible postseason where they help carry their team for the entire postseason and then loses to a team that does not really have a clear favorite of their own. That would pretty much describe the Blues if they win Game 7. Their success is not related to any one great individual performance that has stood out above the pack. At any given time it has been one of Ryan O'Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, or Jaden Schwartz carrying the offense, but none of them have done it consistently throughout the playoffs. Their goalie, Binnington, has really only been okay with moments of brilliance surrounded by obvious flaws and some downright bad games.

If the Blues win history and all modern precedent suggests one of their players will end up winning the Conn Smythe, but if we are being objective about this the true MVP of the playoffs has been standing in Boston’s net all postseason. The outcome of Game 7 is not going to change that. Without him playing at the level he has played at the Bruins have not already been eliminated in this series, they may have very easily been eliminated in Round 1 (against the Toronto Maple Leafs) or in Round 2 (against the Columbus Blue Jackets).

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take one more look at the 2019 Conn Smythe race where Rask is rightfully at the top of the pack on a tier all his own. Everyone else is (or should be) fighting for second place.

To the rankings!

The favorite

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins. He has simply been the best and most impactful player on the ice in the playoffs and is probably the single biggest reason this series is still going on. His numbers are among the best we have ever seen from a goalie in a single playoff run and he has been so much better than everyone else that even if the Blues win Game 7 it should probably be his to take home. The chances of that actually happening are slim (there is plenty of precedent that says the series winner will get the MVP) but that doesn’t mean we can’t disagree.

[Related: Rask the rock steps up for Bruins in Game 6]

If the Blues win

2. Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues. He has probably done enough in this series to get the award if the Blues take Game 7. He may not have consistently been the team’s most productive player or top scorer in the playoffs, but he is still probably their best all-around player and for much of the Stanley Cup Final has beaten Boston’s Patrice Bergeron at his own game as a top-tier two-way center. It is supposed to be an award for the entire postseason, but recency bias takes over in the Stanley Cup Final and O’Reilly has been a monster for the Blues in the series with four goals and three assists. He goes into Game 7 on a three-game goal scoring streak.

3. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues. He played better than his numbers illustrated earlier in the playoffs, then he went on a white-hot run at the absolute best time for the Blues starting with Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. As mentioned above the Blues do not have a clear-cut favorite at this point but the way Tarasenko put the offense on his back over the past month (six goals, five assists over the past 12 games) would make him a worthy candidate.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The long shots but still worth a mention

4. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. We have had Marchand at the top of the rankings for much of the playoffs, mostly because he has been awesome and probably their best overall player not named Rask. But we are dropping him down a few spots here for two reasons. First, he has had a quiet series against the Blues and that will no doubt impact voters when it comes time to cast their ballots (whether it should or not). Second, and most importantly, if the Bruins win Game 7 it just seems impossible to believe that anyone other than Rask will be taking home the MVP. That does not take away from the postseason Marchand has had, just that he has probably become a distant second on his team in the playoff MVP race.

5. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins. The Bruins’ defense was shorthanded for much of the regular season due to injury and that trend has continued at times in the playoffs. Zdeno Chara missed a game earlier this postseason and has played the past two games with a (reported) broken jaw. Matt Grzlecyk has been sidelined since Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Charlie McAvoy missed a game earlier in the playoffs due to suspension. While all of that has been happening Krug has been the one constant on the team’s blue line in the playoffs, appearing in every single game and putting up huge numbers offensively. He is the team’s third-leading scorer entering Game 7 with 18 points, including six in the Stanley Cup Final against the Blues.

6. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues. If the Blues win he would be a nice sleeper choice because of what he did prior to the series. He has gone quiet against the Bruins, but his hot streak in previous played a huge role in helping the Blues to reach this point. 

7. Charlie Coyle, Boston Bruins. After a slow start to his Bruins tenure after the trade from the Minnesota Wild Coyle ended up being everything the Bruins hoped he would be in the playoffs, adding a necessary secondary scoring boost to the lineup. Like Marchand and Krug (and anyone else on the Bruins) he has almost zero chance of taking the award away from Rask if the Bruins win, but he has still proven to be a huge addition that has helped drive the Bruins’ run.

MORE BLUES-BRUINS:
• Bruins push Stanley Cup Final to Game 7 by beating Blues
• Special teams an issue once again for Blues in Game 6 loss
• St. Louis newspaper gets roasted for ‘jinxing’ Blues before Game 6

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 Buzzer: Bruins, Blues are going to Game 7

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  • Don’t blame it on the jinx. Superstitions didn’t stump St. Louis; instead, it was superlative play from Tuukka Rask. He shut down the Blues while they really carried the play through the first 40 minutes of Game 6, and then the Bruins blew open what had been just a 1-0 game heading into the third period. Prepare for the agony and ecstasy of a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final, hockey fans.

Boston Bruins 5, St. Louis Blues 1 (Series tied 3-3; Game 7 airs at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday [NBC; stream here])

This one was a lot closer than it indicated, and not just because Zdeno Chara scored an empty-netter for Boston. While Jordan Binnington was the star of Game 5 for St. Louis, Rask stole one (or at least two-thirds of this one) for Boston, and the Bruins ran away with the final frame to sap any drama from the latter stages of Sunday’s contest. Really, if you step back and look at the series, it only seems fitting that this one is going the distance.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Tuukka Rask

Even the one goal Rask allowed tells part of the story of his Game 6, as it initially looked like he made the save, by Ryan O'Reilly‘s attempt barely went over the red line.

Really, the Blues didn’t deserve to be shut out, not that goose eggs only happen by merit. They put forth a ferocious effort, although their special teams let them down at key times. Rask made 28 out of 29 saves in this one, although there was one close call that will really leave you scratching your head.

It’s tough to make a definitive argument for a specific Blues player to win the Conn Smythe, if they get it, as it’s been a team effort. The Bruins have enjoyed some nice performances from plenty of other cast members, but if a Boston player gets it, it’s going to Rask. He’s been dynamite.

[More on Rask’s big Game 6 performance.]

2. Brad Marchand

Consider this a collective award for “The Perfection Line.” Even with Patrice Bergeron failing to generate a point in Game 6, his effort was considerable, including six shots on goal.

It’s really a jump ball between Marchand and David Pastrnak, though, as both forwards ended Game 6 with a goal and an assist. For my money, Marchand’s goal was the most crucial of the contest. The Blues were really pouring it on, and the Bruins couldn’t squander a 5-on-3 power play opportunity. They didn’t, thanks to some great puck movement, and a nice finish by Marchand. That 1-0 goal wouldn’t serve as the game-winner, but Boston really needed it.

Marchand assisted on Pastrnak’s pretty 4-1 goal, which was a nice display of skill and poise, while throwing a bucket of ice water on any semblance of resistance after ROR shrunk Boston’s lead to a more tenable 3-1.

3. Charlie McAvoy

The second star basically went to two forwards, while the third goes to the overall Bruins’ defensive effort, personified most boldly by McAvoy.

Now, you could make an argument for Jake DeBrusk and the Bruins’ second line, as they made a difference in Game 6, with DeBrusk shining when things were tight. Other Bruins defensemen could jockey for the third billing; Chara scored that empty-netter and showed courage once again, while Brandon Carlo‘s bouncer was the GWG.

And, yes, a very cursory glance at McAvoy’s stats (zero points, what could have been a problematic penalty against Vladimir Tarasenko) wouldn’t impress.

If you dig deeper, you’ll realize how crucial McAvoy was. McAvoy really tilted the ice in his favor during his 25:22 TOI, including almost 21 minutes of tough five-on-five play. He was on the right end of the possession battle to an impressive extent; according to Natural Stat Trick, McAvoy was on the ice for 15 shots for and only six against at even-strength. McAvoy stands far above his other Bruins teammates in other, fancier measures, as well.

Oh yeah, and he also helped Rask keep that puck out – somehow – on that memorably batty play.

Hot take: the Bruins  better make sure they sign McAvoy, who’s a pending RFA.

Factoids

  • Being that the Blues had been swept in all of their previous Stanley Cup Final appearances, it’s redundant to say that this is new for them, and the Bruins have played in a Game 7 in a Stanley Cup Final. This is, however, new for Boston, as this is the first time the Bruins will host a Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Final. Every other “Original Six” team has already hosted at least one Game 7 of a SCF.
  • Karson Kuhlman is the 21st different Bruins player to score at least one goal during this run. The Bruins have tied the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers for the record for most unique scorers during a single postseason. Clearly, Tuukka Rask needs to break the tie. (Sportsnet points out John Moore as a more realistic, less entertaining option.)
  • Speaking of Rask, Sportsnet notes that he has an absurd .966 save percentage on the road during his last seven road playoff games.
  • Torey Krug has six points during this Round 4 series. Only one other Bruins defenseman has generated more points during a Stanley Cup Final series: Bobby Orr scored eight in 1972 and seven in 1974.
  • The Bruins are now 25-1 in playoff games when Brad Marchand scores a goal. His seven goals in Stanley Cup Final games (19 games played) ties Marchand for second all-time among Bruins, with Orr (eight goals in 16 GP) and Johnny Bucyk (eight goals in 24 GP) tied for first. Marchand is currently tied with Wayne Cashman, who generated seven goals in 26 games.

How to watch Game 7

Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs on NBC at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday (stream here).

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.

Thomas to return to Blues’ lineup for Game 6 vs. Bruins

ST. LOUIS — Robert Thomas will make his return to the St. Louis Blues’ lineup for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final Sunday night (8 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

With Ivan Barbashev suspended following his hit on Marcus Johansson in Game 5, Thomas will likely find a spot on the Blues’ third line with Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon. Sammy Blais would shift down to the fourth line alongside Oskar Sundqvist and Alexander Steen.

“I’m good to go. I’m ready,” Thomas said. “It feels great to be back out there with the guys and I’m good to go for tonight.”

The 19-year-old Thomas has not played since taking a hit in the second period of Game 1 from Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug.

“It’s the hardest thing to watch your teammates go out there and they put us in a great position,” Thomas said. “I’m happy to be able to get out there and hopefully help them out.”

Thomas had been dealing with a wrist injury during the playoffs, but Blues head coach Craig Berube said that his four-game absence had nothing to do with the play and that there was always a chance he could return later in the series.

“It was always in the back of my mind and obviously his mind, too,” Berube said. “He wants to play, he’s a gamer, tough kid, so he was always willing to play. But I think the time off has helped him, and he’s more prepared now.”

The Bruins will be making one change to their Game 6 lineup as well. Head coach Bruce Cassidy said that Karson Kuhlman will enter for Steven Kampfer, bringing them back to 12 forwards and six defensemen after going 11/7 in Game 5. Matt Grzelcyk remains out as he still has not cleared concussion protocol.

David Backes will sit once again, but he’s ready to support his teammates as they look to stave off elimination and force a Game 7 Wednesday night in Boston.

“We’re here to win,” he said. “If my part’s grabbing the pom-poms again, I’ll shake those things ’til all the frills fall out of them.”

Blues-Bruins Game 6 is Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports app.

MORE BLUES-BRUINS COVERAGE:
Three keys to Game 6 of Stanley Cup Final
Blues looking to seize opportunity, close out storybook season
Pucks tell the story of Blues’ rollercoaster season

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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.

Bruins know they need to move on from Game 5

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The missed call from Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final stings for the Boston Bruins, but they still have a chance to fight back from the St. Louis Blues’ 3-2 series lead, and make sure that the controversy is a footnote, rather than a lasting memory.

If nothing else, the Bruins can look to their opponents for an example of bouncing back from that painful call, as Boston hopes to do in Game 6 at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday (NBC; stream here).

The Blues could have sulked after the Sharks got away with a hand pass before scoring a big overtime goal in Round 3, but if that happened, it mostly occurred behind closed doors. The Blues responded to that setback by winning the next three games of the Western Conference Final to eliminate the Sharks, transforming that missed call from a catastrophe to a mere bump in the road.

[That hand pass, Game 5’s missed call, and other highly controversial moments from these playoffs]

When it comes to rebounding from 3-2 deficits and tough calls, the Bruins also have their own firsthand experience, as Bruce Cassidy noted on Friday (via Michael Traikos’ transcript):

“We can draw on previous experience,” Cassidy said about the Bruins’ approach to Game 6. “This particular group went into Toronto, in a tough environment, first round, won a game on the road and came back and won it at home. That’s why we’re still playing. One of the reasons. The group that won the Cup (in 2011) had to win the last two. They were down 3-2 … They lived it. There’s some motivation that goes into it, but at this point of the year they know what’s at stake.”

Indeed, the Bruins can look to the frustration they had falling behind Toronto 3-2 in Round 1 after Zach Hyman might have gotten away with goalie interference on Auston Matthews‘ crucial Game 5 goal:

Boston bounced back from that to win that series in seven games, as they hope to do in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

As Torey Krug noted after Thursday’s frustrating 2-1 loss, the Bruins sometimes put themselves in tough positions, but have survived with their backs against the wall.

“We’ve done it before, for sure,” Krug said, via the Bruins’ website. “There’s a lot of different ways we’ve won series, won hockey games, and it’s just another test for this group. We haven’t done anything easy this year. We’ve put ourselves against the wall a lot this season, so it’ll be another test. I think we will be ready to go.”

Really, the Bruins can even take a certain level of pride from how they responded to being down 2-0 in Game 5.

While they couldn’t beat Jordan Binnington enough to tie things up, they finally broke through late in the third period to make it 2-1, and give themselves a chance. It’s likely that the bitterness continued, yet the Bruins still kept hammering away.

Both the Bruins and Blues have had moments where they could’ve been derailed by tough losses and controversial calls. Instead, neither team blinked, and that’s a big reason why they’re battling out in this rugged, hard-fought Stanley Cup Final.

It won’t be easy, but chances are, the Bruins will bring another strong effort in Game 6 at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday (NBC; stream here).

MORE BLUES – BRUINS COVERAGE

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.

Stanley Cup Final: Looking at Bruins’ potential defensive options for Game 5

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Monday’s Game 4 loss to the St. Louis Blues was already the second time in the Stanley Cup Final that the Boston Bruins have had to finish a game with only five healthy defenders.

And for the second time they were on the losing end of the decision thanks in part to their shorthanded lineup.

In Game 2, it was Matt Grzelcyk that was sidelined after he was on the receiving end of an illegal check that kept him out of Games 3 and 4 of the series, while also resulting in a one-game suspension for Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist.

In Game 4 it was veteran Zdeno Chara exiting the game after he was hit in the face by a Brayden Schenn shot that deflected off of Chara’s own stick. Even though he returned to the bench wearing a full face-shield for the entire third period, he never took another shift and was unavailable the entire time.

The status of both players remains very much in doubt for Game 5 of the series on Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC) when it shifts back to Boston. That could be a huge problem for the Bruins.

It is still possible that one — or both — could be available, but that is still a huge unknown at this point and there is still the possibility that neither could be in the lineup. That is the potential doomsday scenario for the Bruins.

If there is one thing that can be said about this Bruins team it’s that they have done a remarkable job overcoming injuries all season, and it might be one of the most impressive aspects of their regular season record and run to the Stanley Cup Final. They have spent a significant portion of the season playing without some of their best players (often at the same time) and still managed to finish with one of the league’s best records. When everyone (or at least most of their lineup) is healthy they have looked like a powerhouse team that can be nearly impossible to beat.

They just haven’t always had that luxury, and when they haven’t they have at times looked vulnerable.

Especially when the injuries come on their blue line.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

If Chara and Grzelcyk are unable to go that would mean the Bruins would be without two of their top-five defenders from the regular season in terms of ice-time.

That is a situation they found themselves in for 26 games during the regular season where at least two of Chara, Grzcelcyk, Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug, or Brandon Carlo (their top-five defenders in ice-time) were out of the lineup. For one seven-game stretch in late November they were actually without three of them. While they remained competitive throughout all of that, they were pretty close to a .500 team in those 26 games with a 13-10-3 record.

Pretty good considering the circumstances, but obviously not anywhere near as dominant as they were when everyone was healthy.

When all five are in the lineup, including playoffs, the Bruins are 25-10-4.

Here’s the good news, such as it is, for the Bruins if Chara and/or Grzelcyk miss any additional team: They still have their best and most important defenders in the lineup in McAvoy and Krug. Those are the players that really drive the Bruins’ defense at this point and can make the biggest impact. They are the best skaters, the best puck-movers, the best ones at jumping into the play and joining the rush, and the ones that can most impact the team’s transition game. Carlo, for whatever shortcomings he might have with the puck, is also still one of their better defensive players.

We already looked at the depth issues associated with Grzelyck’s absence before Game 3, and taking Chara out of the mix only adds to them even if he is no longer one of their most impactful players.

Chara is one of the best defenders of his generation, but at age 42 he is a shell of his former dominant self. He can still be useful, he can he still be strong on the penalty kill, and he is still a huge presence (quite literally) on and off the ice. But he is no longer one of the players driving the bus for this team. The fact the Bruins will still have the players that are doing that is going to help as Bruce Cassidy can still lean on them.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be issues.

For one, none of the potential options are better than Chara and Grzelcyk. If they were, they would already be playing, and anytime you get down to the seventh or eighth defenders on your depth chart you are starting to get into a tough spot.

One option that Cassidy talked about on Tuesday is potentially using seven defenders in Game 5.

“Well, the back end could have a domino effect,” said Cassidy when asked about potential lineup decisions. “Again, speculation, I hate doing this, but if we are out two D, [Grzelcyk and Chara], we might have to play seven defensemen. Putting guys in that haven’t played a ton. Maybe you’ve got to look at how does this best work out to use a guy situationally, take Z’s PK minutes, if the other guys match up, which of course would be reaching into an area that a young kid hasn’t played in the Playoffs at all. You have to be careful there. Forwards, I think we can manage. We’ve used different guys, double-shifted throughout the year. So that part doesn’t worry me as much as how is it going to affect the young kid coming out of the lineup. We’ve plugged a D in, it’s worked well for us so far. That’s the other option. I don’t think we’ll go any other route. We’ve gone this far. Those are our options right now. That’s dictated by health right now.”

With veteran John Moore playing Games 3 and 4 he would obviously be a candidate to remain in the lineup if one of Grzlecyk or Chara can not go. If they are both out, and the Bruins opt to go with seven defenders, their remaining options would include veteran Steve Kampfer and rookies Jeremy Lauzon, Urho Vaakanainen, and Jakub Zboril. None of the rookies have ever played in a single playoff game and have just 20 regular season games between them.

Throwing one of them right into a Stanley Cup Final game would be a massive jump, especially since none of them have played an NHL game of any kind anytime recently.

The idea of seven defenders is a tough one because it can create a lot of problems.

On one hand when you are already deep into your depth chart and short on players it doesn’t seem to make a ton sense to play MORE of your defenders that aren’t good enough to crack your regular lineup. It also shortens your forward lineup and takes out a player that is probably better and more useful than the extra defender you are putting in the lineup (which forward do you want to scratch if you are the Bruins? Nobody deserves it).

But doing so could give Cassidy and his coaching staff the option to limit who plays in what situations, putting them into positions where they can succeed and don’t risk having their flaws as exposed (like penalty kill situations, for example, or defensive zone starts against the Blues’ top line).

In the end it is a potentially difficult situation for the Bruins to navigate, and one that could significantly impact the outcome of the series.

If neither one can go none of their options are particularly good ones. Their best hope is that both are, somehow, healthy enough to play.

Game 5 of Blues-Bruins is Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBC from TD Garden in Boston

MORE BLUES-BRUINS:
Bruins confident they can overcome injuries 
Chara’s status for Game 5 unknown
Chara bloodied after taking puck to face

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.