Defense wins championships; it’s one of the oldest cliches in sports. However, cliches are often true, and when the puck drops between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues on Monday, this one will likely be no different.
When it comes to playing at even strength, the Blues and Bruins are a match made in heaven. Each team’s strength can be used to counter the other’s. For instance, while St. Louis has been better offensively during 5-on-5 play, Boston has been better defensively throughout their postseason run.
While the special team’s matchup is a different story (as the statistics are highly tilted in the Bruins’ favor), this series will likely be decided based on 5-on-5 play. In fact, the Blues and Bruins average just 6:18 and 6:21 in penalty minutes per game, respectively – the two lowest in these playoffs. Coupling that with the potential of a ‘let them play’ style of officiating, it’s unlikely that we’ll see many skaters heading to the penalty box in this series.
Even with these strengths and weaknesses, the margin between the statistics is slim. For example, the Bruins have averaged 44.2 shot attempts per game while the Blues have averaged 41.9. The Bruins have only lost three games in which their opponent has scored first while the Blues have lost just four. It’s about as even a matchup as you can get – at least on paper.
Blues: Well-Rounded Blue Line
St. Louis’ defense has been solid in just about every situation presented to them. It’s a group that is comfortable playing a stand-up, stay-at-home style and yet thrives under high-paced conditions.
Led by team captain Alex Pietrangelo with 13, Blues defenders have combined for a whopping 44 points in 19 games this postseason. Five of the seven defensemen the Blues have iced during their run have notched a goal. Better yet, just one St. Louis blueliner has a plus-minus rating in the red, which is Vince Dunn with a minus-three.
Speaking of Dunn, the 22-year-old’s status for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final has been in question. He has been dealing with a jaw injury since the Western Conference Final but was seen practicing on Sunday with a face guard. While the Blues are confident he will appear in the Stanley Cup Final, it just isn’t clear whether or not that will include the first game of the series.
Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, and Jay Bouwmeester lead the team in time-on-ice per game and are the only three defensemen averaging over 20 minutes. Their ability to be effective in both ends of the rink makes them formidable threats that the Bruins will have to avoid at one end of the ice and contain at the other.
Ultimately, these blueliners will be tasked with silencing Boston’s top line, but they will also need to do their part offensively. The way Tuukka Rask has been playing this postseason is exactly why the Bruins have found themselves in the Final. He’s stolen wins for Boston throughout the run, and St. Louis will need to solve him. Screens and deflections are likely the Blues’ best bet, meaning the blueliners better be ready to fire away.
Bruins: Hard-Nosed Defense
Boston’s blue line has been a revolving door all season. Injuries plagued the team early on, and defensemen were constantly being brought up from the AHL and back down again.
While Kevan Miller has been out all playoffs long, the Bruins have a defense they can rely on in tight situations. Connor Clifton has made an impact during his rookie campaign, bringing an exciting mix of physicality and offensive abilities. Matt Grzelcyk has locked down a role and has proven to be valuable in the transition game and on the power play.
Zdeno Chara is still making his presence known: the captain shares duties on the top unit with Charlie McAvoy. They’ve been thwarting some of the league’s top forwards all season long and balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses nicely to make for a versatile pair.
Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo have that same balance. Krug isn’t afraid to showcase his speed by jumping into the rush and quarterbacking the power play – the offense he generates is by far his best asset. Meanwhile, Carlo is very strong in his own zone, bringing physicality and an overall high hockey IQ – it’s rare to see him caught chasing the puck or out of position.
These six defensemen can get a little sloppy at times, however. They’ve fallen a step behind their opponents on multiple occasions during this playoff run and have often paid for it. They will need to match St. Louis’ pace throughout the series if the Bruins are to have a shot at winning the Cup.
It would be shocking if this series was decided in less than six games. However, we know that anything can happen in the playoffs. With that said, the evidence is stacking up and it’s indicating that this Stanley Cup Final is going to be a long one.
If that is the case, these defenses will need to stay calm and collected. They will no doubt take a beating along the boards, throwing – as well as receiving – hits. A winner will be crowned by mid-June, and it will likely be the team with the better defense that gets to hoist the Stanley Cup.