The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs have been one of the more wild and unpredictable playoffs in recent memory. Heavy favorites have been swept. Last year’s Stanley Cup Finalists (Washington and Vegas) never made it out of the first round. Now, we are down to two survivors: Boston and St Louis. A rematch of the 1970 Stanley Cup Finals that produced one of the most iconic photos in sports history: Bobby Orr’s game winning overtime goal in Game 4 that clinched the Stanley Cup Championship for the Boston Bruins.
This should be an entertaining series. Both are great “teams” who have hot goaltenders. Boston is the obvious favorite in this series, and rightfully should be, due to their previous Stanley Cup Finals experience. But the Blues are more evenly-matched with the Bruins than some hockey analysts think. Quite a few experts are predicting the Bruins taking the series in four or five games. For the St Louis Blues, it’s probably a good thing to fly a bit under the radar here. To try to prove skeptics wrong and potentially play an overconfident Bruins team. But just how close are these two teams?
Since January 2nd, when the St Louis Blues were dead last in the NHL league standings with 34 points, the Blues and Bruins have a nearly identical win percentages since. The Bruins 59 games 39-15-5 (.661 win %) and the Blues 64 games 42-17-5 (.656 win %). This includes all regular season and the playoff contests. A razor blade difference.
The St Louis Blues have split the regular season two-game series with the Boston Bruins the past five seasons. The Blues won their last game vs the Bruins with goaltender Jordan Binnington in a 2-1 shootout on February 23rd in St Louis.
I attended Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals between the Blues-Sharks and had ice-level seating. My observation is that this St Louis Blues team is very well-coached and well positioned in the defensive zone. They hustle and beat you to the puck, they work efficiently together to get the puck out of their zone and everyone knows where the next player should be. This is a credit to Craig Berube who took over as head coach of the Blues last November.
Offensively, the Blues, like the Bruins, are getting production out of all four lines. Both teams have a nice combination of youth, speed and veteran experience. Both teams can play a physical game if necessary but that’s neither of these teams forte.
What separates this current Blues team from so many talented Blues teams in the past is that they play less dump and chase hockey. They take more chances carrying the puck over the Blue Line to put pressure on the opposing defenses. This is mainly a credit to the puck handling skills of players like Ryan O’Reilly and Vladamir Tarasenko. And the Blues mobile defensemen like Alex Pietrangelo who can recover if the puck gets stolen or redirected. You’ve got to have a good backline to press the envelope offensively.
Where Boston has a clear advantage is this series is with their top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. This combination has produced 22 goals thus far in the playoffs. How well the Blues checking line handles this line may be the difference and deciding factor in the series.
Another area where the Bruins hold an advantage is on Special Teams. The Bruins, as a team, are connecting on 34% of their power play advantages. This works out to an average of one power play goal per game. The Blues will have to stay out of the penalty box vs the Bruins as much as possible. But St Louis have been good at staying out of the Sin Bin thus far in the playoffs. They are the least penalized team with an average of 6.32 penalty minutes per game.
Goaltending is the last line of defense and often the deciding factor in who wins the Cup. This will be a great match-up of goaltending between the Bruins Tuukka Rask and the Blues Jordan Binnington. My gut feeling is that the first team that gets the third victory in the series will likely close out the series in the next game. In potential series-clinching games, Tuuka Rask is 3-0 with a 0.33 goals against average and a 99.0% save percentage. Jordan Binnington is 3-0 with a 1.17 goals against average and a 94.7% save percentage.
I spent a few nights reviewing various metrics and analytics used in hockey to see if I could apply any of them to predict the Stanley Cup winner. For example, various Corsi stats, goal differential, shots per game, power play percentages, penalty kill percentages, points over last 25 games and defensive stats like hits per game, blocked shots per game.
My conclusion, these teams are very close in all metric categories. You can use some of these metrics to eliminate potential Stanley Cup champions at the start of the playoffs. But, there is no single metric that can predict the Stanley Cup winner.
Some key stats to keep an eye on though, the St Louis Blues are 9-1 in the playoffs when scoring first in the first six minutes. The Blues have been a great road team in these playoffs with a 7-2 record. Ponder that with a rookie goaltender. The Boston Bruins are 11-0 when leading entering the third period. The Bruins also are on a roll, winning their last seven straight games.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are all about hot goaltending, outworking the opponent and momentum swings. Once you get to the Stanley Cup Finals, both teams are great teams who had to overcome some adversity. Both have great goaltenders playing at a high level. So it’s anybody’s series.
My Prediction: I think this series will end in one of two ways. It will be either be the Boston Bruins in six games or the St Louis Blues in seven games. Game One will be a key tone-setting game. If the Blues can steal the opener, I think they win the series. If the Blues can win one of the first two games in Boston, they are still in the mix.
Overall, when push comes to shove, I say Boston wins this series in six games. Hopefully, injuries won’t be a factor as it can change the dynamics of a series.