The San Jose Sharks had just been knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs, bruised and beaten in a punishing series as the St. Louis Blues had injured some of their best players, when Coach Pete DeBoer made an observation about the two teams still standing.
“I think the two hardest, heaviest teams are in the final,” he said of the Blues and Boston Bruins. “Everyone talks about skill and all the small players, and there is room for that, but I don’t think it’s an accident.”
After DeBoer’s Sharks took a 2-1 edge in the Western Conference finals, they faded against a bigger and badder Blues team, dropping three straight games and unable to overcome injuries to forwards Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl and defenseman Erik Karlsson in the clinching Game 6. For a second straight Stanley Cup finals, physicality has played a pivotal role — a reminder that there’s not only still a place for it in the NHL, but that it’s often an ingredient for success.
Every member of the Blues’ blue line stands at least 6 feet and weighs more than 200 pounds, led by the 6-6, 230-pound Colton Parayko. Joel Edmundson, Jay Bouwmeester and Robert Bortuzzo are 6-4.
“We believe in big defense,” St. Louis General Manager Doug Armstrong said last week. “We have had a lot of big defensemen over a number of years. It’s probably not as physical of a game as it was, but they’re like seaweed — they’re tough to get through back there.”
The Bruins have 6-9, 250-pound Zdeno Chara on defense, but beyond him, their lineup is smaller and shiftier than St. Louis’s. It can still play big, however, such as when the 5-9 Torey Krug in Game 1 skated down the ice without his helmet and flattened Blues forward Robert Thomas in the most heralded hit of the series so far.
“I think you need a blend,” Armstrong said. “A number of years ago, you would have maybe one or two skating defensemen and four defenders and then it goes to three and three and maybe four and two. You have to evolve with the game. I think also coming out of one of the work stoppages it became a smaller man’s game, and I give credit to the bigger players. They got quicker, they got smarter, they got better, and size is always still a factor.”
Back-to-back championships by the Pittsburgh Penguins sparked a leaguewide shift to a fast, counterattacking style, but then last year, the Washington Capitals won with a balanced attack, able to beat teams with rush plays while also wearing down opponents over a playoff series with their bigger players asserting their size advantage. In these Stanley Cup finals, tied at two games apiece after St. Louis’s 4-2 Game 4 win Monday, the Blues appear to be winning the war of attrition.
Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk has missed the past two games with a concussion after a high hit from Oskar Sundqvist, for which the Blues center was suspended one game, and Chara’s status for Game 5 is unclear after a shot unluckily clipped him in the face Monday night. There has also been speculation that top center Patrice Bergeron is playing hurt; when Boston had a big lead late in Game 3, Bergeron didn’t play the final seven minutes.
“I did expect a physical series, but we bang hard, too," Bruins Coach Bruce Cassidy told reporters in St. Louis. “They’ve got a player [Thomas] out of the lineup — whether it’s a result of a hit from Krug or not, I don’t know. But we’re trying to take hits when we need to, give hits when they’re there.”
St. Louis’s chippy play, especially where it concerns Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask, cost the Blues in their two losses this series, racking up penalties with the Bruins’ potent power play able to take advantage. After Game 3, Blues Coach Craig Berube griped about the number of whistles that had gone against his players (14) after St. Louis had been the least penalized team through the first three rounds of the postseason.
The Blues did a better job staying out of the box in Game 4 while still delivering 44 hits. The Bruins were close behind, credited with 41, both teams trying to make their mark with the series now deadlocked.
“Ultimately to get to here, you have to have a big heart,” Armstrong said. “That’s what excites us about our group: We have a bunch of guys with big hearts.”