Bernie on Game 1: After Being Devoured By The Bruins, Can The Blues Summon Their Usual Winning Response?

After terminating the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Final, the Blues moved into the Stanley Cup showdown to see if their momentum, puck-possession prowess and magical postseason run would endure an onslaught from the NHL’s best team, the Boston Bruins.

To paraphrase a famous line from the movie “Jaws” …

The Blues are gonna need a bigger boat.

After taking a 2-0 lead in Game 1, the Blues’ promising start was devoured by the Bruins, who are the real great-white sharks of these 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Over the gruesome final two periods the Blues were swarmed, attacked, overwhelmed, and left mostly helpless. The Bruins won 4-2, capping their domination with an empty-net goal.

The only reason this game was misleadingly close can be credited to Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington. He was fantastic, with an overall save percentage of .914. And even better at 5-on-5, stopping 24 of 26 for a save percentage of .923. And the two 5-on-5 goals on Binnington came on deflections and weren’t his fault. He was simply stone-cold great. But after taking a 2-0 lead early in the first minute of the second period, the Blues abandoned their goaltender.

Over the final two periods the Bruins outshot the Blues 30-12 and had a massive edge in scoring chances (21-10) and high-danger chances (8-2.) The totality of the Bruins’ control was even more humiliating for the Blues at 5-on-5 during the final 40 minutes. After going ahead 2-0 the Blues were outshot 22-5. Boston had 11 more scoring chances than St. Louis (16-5.) And in high-danger chances over the final 40 minutes: Boston, 5-0.

After a rubbing the sleep from their eyes, the Bruins got into their flow and emphatically dictated the action to take a 1-0 lead in this best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final.

Here’s What We Learned From Game One:

1. If the Blues are going to play foolishly with careless turnovers and idiotic penalties away from the play, this will be a short series.

Can’t give the lethal Bruins five power plays with penalties in the offensive zone, and neutral zone. Can’t frequently cough up the puck when under pressure by Boston. Can’t try silly stretch passes from your own zone that will get picked off by the alert Bruins.

Yes, Boston scored only one power-play goal on five opportunities — but that’s largely irrelevant. First of all, the power-play goal was a biggie that tied the game at 2-2. Second, all of those power plays helped the Bruins sharpen up on their passing, their touch game, after a 10-day layoff. Third, having to kill so many penalties is tiring, and keeps some of the more offensively capable Blues players on the bench. Fourth, having to fend off the Bruins on five power play prevented the Blues from sustaining momentum in the first period, or generating momentum after the STL offense was being devoured by the Bruins. And finally: keep doing this, and the Bruins won’t be going 1-for-5 on the power play. They’ll exploit more PP opportunities going forward. Their 34.7 percent power-play success rate coming into the Stanley Cup Final is proof of that.

The dumb-penalty outbreak was even more frustrating considering the Blues chatter before Game 1. Have to play smart, they said. Have to be disciplined, they said. Have to stay out of the penalty box, they said. And then they took the ice for Game 1 and were guilty of committing the mental blunders that they vowed to avoid. Not their finest moment.

As coach Craig Berube said in the postgame news conference: “You have five penalties, it takes a lot of guys out of the game and that burns up a lot of energy from other guys that are killing all the time. It’s too much. We’ve got to be better there. We’ve got to be more disciplined. Calls are calls. That’s the way it goes and we’re not going to complain about it. We’ve just got to be better. We’ve been real disciplined most of all playoffs, pretty much. We weren’t tonight, obviously, with five penalties. We’ve got to be better there.”

And anyone in Blues Country that’s whining about officiating instead of the Blues’ self-inflicted mistakes — such as losing all common sense and unnecessarily putting themselves into position to be whistled for penalties — is simply copping out, taking the easy way out, and ignoring the truth of why the Blues flubbed this chance grab Game 1.

2. We learned that the Bruins are just as resilient and tough-minded as the Blues.

During the Western Conference playoffs, the Blues were clearly the more unflappable, determined and driven team in their conquests of Winnipeg, Dallas and San Jose. But … the Bruins aren’t the Jets, the Stars, the Sharks. They won’t go soft. They won’t defer, retreat, or succumb. They are just as tenacious as St. Louis — only with more overall talent.

There is nothing fluky or random about Boston’s rolling-tank winning streak of eight consecutive games — in which they’ve outscored overmatched victims 32-11.

The way that Boston responded to a slow start that put them at a two-goal deficit … … well, the Blues certainly know, for sure, what they’re up against now.

Where’s that bigger boat?

3. We learned that the Bruins can match, or exceed, the Blues previous advantage in depth.

This was something I noted before the series.

Entering the Cup Final, the Bruins had gotten goals from 19 different players — one more than the Blues’ count of 18.

In Game 1, and not including the empty-netter, the Bruins got two goals from defenseman — Connor Clifton and Charlie McAvoy — and a goal and three assists from their fourth line manned by center Sean Kuraly, left wing Joakim Nordstrom and right wing Noel Acciari.

With the fourth line on the ice at 5-on-5, a total of 10 minutes and 31 seconds, the Bruins outscored the Blues 2-0 and had a 3-1 edge in high-danger chances.

At 5-on-5, the Bruins’ second line of David Backes, Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci had a Corsi-for possession rating of 85.7 percent — which is wacko — and outshot the Blues 6-0 … and with three scoring chances to none for St. Louis.

And at 5-on-5, Boston’s third line of Marcus Johansson, Charlie Coyle and Danton Heinen had a Corsi-for possession rating of 67 percent and produced a 3-1 advantage in scoring chances.

And to think that we were fretting in advance — understandably so — over the imposing danger presented by the top Boston line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak.

As has been the case on many occasions during Boston’s season, coach Bruce Cassidy did not hesitate to adjust in-game and give his fourth line a more prominent role. In this instance, he moved his top line away from matching up with the Blues’ effective top line of Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko.

That top Blues trio outscored Boston 2-0, but the fun ended after Cassidy assigned his No. 4 line to suppress the the Blues’ No. 1 unit.

“This is what they do,” Cassidy said of his fourth line. “They possess pucks, they can skate, they play simple hockey and I think against St. Louis if you play north, especially for us being off as long as we were, we had to to not get drawn into the fancy stuff, the east-west stuff, stuff that you’re doing in practice because you don’t have the competitive edge.”

4. We learned that the Blues defaulted on an excellent chance to exploit a rusty Tukka Rask.

It was a splendid an opportunity — one that the Blues may not have again. We’ll see.

The Boston goalie — the best in the tournament through the first three rounds — faced only 20 shots on goal overall in three periods in Game 1. And the Blues managed only 13 shots on goal against Rask at 5-on-5 for the entire damn game.

Rask had a .900 save percentage overall, and a poor .846 save percentage at 5-on-5. Rask was challenged with only three high-danger chances overall, and only one HD chance at 5-on-5. Both Blues’ goals came on medium-danger opportunities. Yep, he was vulnerable. But the Note made it way too easy for Rask.

The Blues got at least one shot on goal from only seven of their 12 forwards. And only two of the 12 forwards had more than one shot on goal: Schenn with six, and Tarasenko with two. And as you know, Schenn and Tarasenko scored the Blues goals. The Blues had Rask down, put couldn’t make him crack because of their inability to make him work after taking a wasted 2-0 lead.

5. We learned that the Bruins are the superior team at 5-on-5 play.

And from the Blues standpoint, there is great danger — pardon the pun — in the Bruins’ advantage at scoring from in close… and limiting their opponents’ goals scored from close range.

And no, I’m not overreacting to one game. This was something I wrote about before the series: the Blues foundation is strength at 5-on-5 … but the same is true of the Bruins. And that’s been the reality for quite some time.

As for Game 1: in 5-on-5 play (all three periods) the Bruins had a 67% share of shots on goal, a 69.2% share of scoring chances, and an 86% share of high-danger shots.

At 5-on-5 what separates the Bruins from the Blues this postseason are (1) Boston’s dominance in the dirty areas, the scoring chances from the crease and slot; and (2) the sharp finishing touch to convert scoring chances — especially the high-danger opportunities — into goals.

Again, these are 5-on-5 counts:

  • Scoring chances, goals scored and allowed: Bruins 32-18, Blues 32-29. Translation: compared to postseason opponents, the Bruins have a 64% share of the goals that come from scoring chances. The Blues’ corresponding share is 52.4 percent.
  • Percentage of high-danger scoring chances compared to opponents: Bruins 54.3%, and Blues 46%.
  • High-danger goals for: the Bruins 20, their opponents’ 7. The Blues have 19 high-danger goals; their opponents 23.
  • High-danger share of goals scored compared to opponents: Bruins 74.1% … Blues 45% percent.

Glaring.

Five positive takeaways for the Blues:

1-Binnington.

2-The work in quieting Boston’s top line.

3- The performance of the Blues’ top line for a large section of Game 1.

4-Despite the Bruins’ kick-ass takeover following the second STL goal, the teams ended the evening with the same amount of 5-on-5 goals (2-2.) And Game 1 was there to be stolen by the Blues as the teams ventured into the third period. The Blues had no response. They were smothered.

5. The Blues played a similar road game to open the San Jose series: a messy, mistake-filled pile of turnovers and goofy penalties that set up the Sharks for a 6-3 win. The Blues had a helluva an answer in Game 2 at San Jose, winning 4-2.

5a. Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester: outstanding.

Five Questions:

1-Sure, the Blues can clean up the mistakes and repair the discipline breakdowns for Game 2 … but even if Berube successfully fine-tunes his team, will it be enough to take Game 2? In other words: if the Blues play their best (or close to it) and the Bruins play their best (or close to it), then how do the Blues prevail?

2-What, if anything, can the Blues do to reestablish their down-low cycle game that hogs possession and generates scoring chances? If the Blues can’t impose their successful style of play on the Bruins, it’s hopeless.

3-Will there be any lineup changes for Game 2? Blues defenseman Joel Edmundson was absolutely the worst player on the ice in Game 1. Just brutal. If Vince Dunn is ready to return, could we see him subbed in for Edmundson? The Blues need a speed upgrade to keep pace with the quicker Bruins. Robby Fabbri time? Perhaps, especially if Robert Thomas can’t go in Game 2.

4- Before the Stanley Cup Final, the Blues were 7-2 on the road this postseason with a big advantage in goals scored. But Boston is reanimated after the long layoff, and got the jump with a home win in Game 1. After frittering away a two-goal lead and a swell chance to win Game 1, have the Blues lost some of their road mojo? Will they play confidently in Game 2?

5-Can the Blues do a better job of winning faceoffs in Game 2? The Bruins won 58% of the even-strength draws in Game 1.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie