It took a while but the Boston Bruins, idle since May 16 after sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals, learned they will face St. Louis in the Stanley Cup finals after the Blues knocked out the San Jose Sharks in six games.
These two teams have some playoff history. Boston and St. Louis clashed during the 1970 Stanley Cup finals, which featured Bruins legend Bobby Orr winning the series in overtime of Game 4 with his iconic flying goal. Boston has won two more championships since, most recently in 2011, while St. Louis has never won a Stanley Cup in the 51-year history of the franchise, tying them with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the longest title-less streak in the NHL. Not only have the Blues never won a ring, they are 0-12 in the Stanley Cup finals.
A sweep by Boston this time around isn’t likely, but the outcome of the series projects to be the same.
That’s not to say the Blues won’t be a worthy opponent. St. Louis was the worst team in the NHL on Jan. 2 (15-18-4, 34 points) but stormed back into contention behind a 30-10-5 record the rest of the way, setting the stage for Monday’s rematch. At the center of it all is rookie netminder Jordan Binnington. The 25-year-old Ontario native stopped 748 of 807 (.927 save percentage) pucks faced during the regular season and led the league in goals against average (1.89). His performance in the playoffs, however, has soured a bit. His save percentage is down to .914 and he’s stopped just 105 of 130 shots (.808 save percentage) in the high-danger areas such as the slot or crease at even strength, the lowest save rate among playoff goaltenders playing at least 500 minutes, per data from Natural Stat Trick. Binnington stopped 86 percent of high-danger chances during the regular season.
That’s a problem -- the biggest focus for Boston has been winning the battle in the slot. During the 2019 postseason the Bruins have generated 118 shots in the slot or crease at even strength while allowing 92. During last year’s playoff run they were outshot 81 to 60 in the high-danger areas.
“I do believe that teams that control the slot battle — and I think that’s eye test, too, but the numbers really back that up — win the majority of the games,” Bruins Coach Bruce Cassidy told 98.5 The Sports Hub. “I think for me, it’s you keep them out of the prime scoring area, you get to the prime scoring area. That’s a big determiner. So we constantly look at that area.”
Boston’s top line, featuring Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, dominated in goal differential 11 to 4 at even strength with more high-danger scoring chances than its playoff opponents, per data from Natural Stat Trick. David Backes and David Krejci weren’t as successful on the second line — they were outscored by opponents 3 to 5 at even strength — but they are holding a 14-to-7 edge in high-danger scoring chances during this playoff run, perhaps indicating better luck is on the horizon. And Boston’s third line featuring Danton Heinen, Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, who was acquired from the New Jersey Devils at the trade deadline, is also making an impact. Heinen, Coyle and Johansson have outscored opponents 5 to 1 at even strength in the playoffs while holding a 17-11 edge in high-danger scoring chances over 77 minutes of play.
Johansson is proving to be a key member of this unit. The 28-year-old winger has three goals and six assists in the playoffs, and each of those goals were instrumental in Boston advancing to the Stanley Cup finals: including the game-winning goal in a series-clinching game against the Maple Leafs and the second goal in the 3-0 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 6. Five of his six assists have been the primary helper, tying him with Krejci for the team lead.
Johansson’s speed and ability to carry the puck into the zone is not only going to be a problem for the Blues defensively, it hinders their offense, too.
To be fair, Johansson isn’t tasked with playing against the opposition’s top-six forwards but the opposing skaters he has faced haven’t been productive during this playoff run. For example, in the series against Toronto, Johansson skated opposite William Nylander and Patrick Marleau most often, yet the two combined for zero points and nine shots on net in seven games against him. Blue Jackets center Boone Jenner had zero goals and an assist against Johansson’s line in the second round. And no Carolina forward scored an even-strength goal against Boston with Johansson on the ice in the Eastern Conference finals.
As I mentioned earlier: a sweep by Boston isn’t likely but we should expect the Bruins to hoist the Stanley Cup, most likely after the series goes the full seven games.
Read more from The Post: