By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
The 2019 Stanley Cup Final is set to begin on Monday night and this very much feels like David vs. Goliath. Boston has had an over-abundance of championship success, including a World Series and Super Bowl in the last eight months and now the Boston Bruins get their chance to turn the duo into a trio. The St. Louis Blues are making their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 49 years in search of their first title.
It's a rematch of the 1970 Stanley Cup Final, you know, the one with the immortalized Bobby Orr goal.
Here is a preview of the series, including each team’s candidates for Conn Smythe, how they got to the Final and what they need to do to win the Cup.
How They Got Here
The Boston Bruins were a really strong team throughout the regular season, but stuck in the shadow of the Tampa Bay Lightning and their historic regular-season point total. After getting throttled by Washington in their season opener, 7-0, Boston won the next four games convincingly. Through October, Boston was actually just one point behind Tampa Bay.
By Thanksgiving, Boston was still in playoff position, but had slipped from second to fourth in the competitive Atlantic Division. After the holiday break in December, Boston was still in fourth in the Atlantic and other teams were putting distance on them. Tampa Bay was 14 points ahead. Toronto was eight points ahead. A five-game winning streak pulled the Bruins back to third, two points behind Toronto.
Following the All-Star break, the Bruins really got on a roll. Their first two games out of the break were a shootout loss to Winnipeg and an overtime loss to the Flyers. But that was the beginning of a 19-game points streak that included 15 wins. When the streak ended with a loss to Pittsburgh on March 10 — the start of a three-game losing streak — the Bruins were four points ahead of Toronto and Washington, comfortably in second place, but still 15 points back of Tampa Bay.
The three-game losing streak as followed by a four-game winning streak. The Bruins took the late-season momentum and cruised into a second place finish in the Atlantic and home ice against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The teams split the first six games of the series with Boston winning Games 2, 4 and 6. In Game 7 on home ice, the Bruins put the series away with a 5-1 win.
In the second round, the Bruins were expected to have to face the President’s Trophy winners, but Columbus’ shocking series sweep actually gave the Bruins home ice for the rest of the playoffs. The Bruins got a 3-2 overtime win in Game 1, but lost Games 2 and 3. Boston responded with a convincing win in Game 4, a wild finish in Game 5 and another convincing effort in Game 6.
The Bruins got another interesting matchup when they faced upstart Carolina in the Eastern Conference Final. By this point, Carolina was battered with injuries and proved to be no match for the Bruins, particularly with the help of Tuukka Rask, who allowed five total goals in the series as Boston swept their way to the Stanley Cup Final.
Conn Smythe Leaders
Without a doubt, the reason the Bruins are here is because of Tuukka Rask. The Bruins got the better of Carolina at home, but on the road had to fight for two wins and got outstanding goaltending. Rask also keyed the three-straight wins in the Columbus series as well.
Rask is playing some of his best hockey and is in the same kind of zone Tim Thomas was in when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011. He’s easily the pick for Conn Smythe if the Bruins win.
What the Bruins Need to Do to Win
Boston has certainly had their share of games during the season where they didn’t look very good because everything went through the top line of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. If they were shut down, the Bruins were done.
In the playoffs, the depth has been there from Boston. Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, two trade deadline acquisitions, have proven to be valuable. Boston’s fourth line has been excellent, led by tenacious play from Sean Kuraly. It’s taken a lot of pressure off the big three at the top.
Defensively, the Bruins have been sound and have gotten added offense from unlikely sources. Matt Grzelcyk has emerged as a Top 4 defenseman and Brandon Carlo has returned from a devastating injury last March that ended his season to the form that made him a Top 40 draft pick. Pair those two with Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy and this is a solid defensive group from top to bottom.
Of course, the play of the goaltender is what will really drive this home. Rask has been outstanding in the playoffs. One more series like this for him and it could be one of the more memorable postseasons from a goaltender in recent history.
St. Louis Blues
It’s a remarkable story that the St. Louis Blues are even here. The Blues had a 3-4-3 record in October. By Thanksgiving, they were 7-10-3 with the second lowest points total in the NHL. On Nov. 19, they fired head coach Mike Yeo and made assistant coach Craig Berube the interim head coach.
That didn’t make things much better early. They went 6-6-1 in December and were still looking up at the league, tied with Ottawa for the lowest point total with a 15-18-4 record.
But on Jan. 7, things changed. The Blues entered Philadelphia and won, 3-0, behind goalie Jordan Binnington in his first NHL start. The Blues won five of the next nine games — getting points in six of them — to enter the All-Star break with a 22-22-5 record and finally out of the cellar in the Central Division.
The Blues had won their final game before the All-Star break in Anaheim. When they returned to the ice 10 days later, they continued to build on that win, eventually turning it into an 11-game winning streak. On Feb. 20, the Blues woke up following the 11th straight win with a 32-22-5 record and suddenly in third place in the Central, just seven points off of the lead.
Following a 5-5-3 stretch over the next 13 games, which had them in third in the Central just two points ahead of fourth and six points off the lead, the Blues went on a final push in the regular season. In the final 10 games of the season, the Blues earned eight wins and points in nine of the 10 games. Following a 3-2 win over Vancouver on the season’s final day, the Blues actually held the Central Division lead pending the results of games for both Nashville and Winnipeg. Both teams won, pushing the Blues back to third, but they were entering the playoffs on a hot streak.
The Blues jumped out to a 2-0 series lead over Winnipeg with two wins on the road, but dropped both games at home. After another 3-2 win in Winnipeg, the Blues finished the series off at home behind a hat trick from Jaden Schwartz.
The Blues were pushed to the limit in the next round by the Dallas Stars. St. Louis opened the series with a 3-2 win and took a 2-1 series with a 4-3 win in Game 3 on a late goal by Patrick Maroon. But Dallas took the next two games, including Game 5 in St. Louis. The Blues won Game 6, 4-1, sending the series back to St. Louis for Game 7. The two teams traded goals separated by 2:25 in the first period. Not many games this postseason have gone to overtime and required more than 20 minutes, but this Game 7 did. Finally at 5:50 of the second overtime, Maroon scored on a rebound to send the Blues to the Western Conference Final.
Facing the San Jose Sharks in the West Final, San Jose got the early jump with a 6-3 win in Game 1, a game that the Blues were chasing most of the way. The Blues evened the series in Game 2 with a 4-2 win.
That set up Game 3, which featured a controversial ending that everyone will be talking about for some time. The Blues had a four-goal second period to put them in front, 4-3, after two periods. The Blues held off the Sharks for nearly all of the third period before Logan Couture scored to tie the game with one minute left and force overtime. In overtime, Timo Meier used his hand to pass the puck to Gustav Nyquist in the slot. The hand pass was not called and Erik Karlsson scored to win Game 3 for the Sharks. It was not a reviewable play, so the goal counted and the game was over.
That kind of call could have been a dagger for the Blues. Instead, they came back in Game 4 with a 2-1 win to even the series, then dominated Games 5 and 6, 5-0 and 5-1, to move on to the Stanley Cup Final.
There are two players for the Blues that could get this, and it likely depends on how the Final goes to determine which player is truly in the lead. Jordan Binnington has been a great story and has the numbers and performances to back up everything he has achieved. The Blues aren’t here without Binnington.
But Jaden Schwartz has also had an excellent postseason with two hat tricks as part of his 12 goals in the playoffs. He’s certainly in the running for the Conn Smythe as well.
What the Blues Need to Do to Win
Keep playing with intensity, but stay disciplined. Part of what helped get the Blues to the Final is that they didn’t give San Jose a chance to get back into the final two games of the West Final with power plays. The Sharks had two power plays in Game 5 and one in Game 6. The Bruins power play has been lethal this postseason, especially in the last series against Carolina. Staying out of the box is a must.
But the other part of the equation is the complete belief that the Blues have shown that they can pull this off. Just look at the effort they gave in the final three games of the West Final. Following a setback in Game 3, which never should have happened, this didn’t sulk and stew in it, they charged out of the gate and established the early lead in Game 4, then controlled the final two games against a Sharks team that was also battered by injury.
The offense has been coming around as well. Vladimir Tarasenko is heating up at the perfect time. Brayden Schenn snapped a 13-game goalless drought in the clincher. Ryan O'Reilly has been an offensive force, even if he's not scoring the goals. Obviously Schwartz is at the center of things too. And then you get the depth from St. Louis' fourth line from guys like Sammy Blais and Ivan Barbashev.
The Bruins have a physical edge to their game as well, so getting the upper hand there and being relentless offensively on the puck and pressuring in the defensive zone will help the Blues get this done.