The Bruins have gone as far as a team can possibly go in advancing to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
No matter how tonight shakes out, they’ll have had a better season than 29 other teams in the National Hockey League. It’s about figuring how how to ensure they’ve bested all 30 of their opponents, with the St. Louis Blues representing the final obstacle.
Losing Game 7 on home ice would be a bitter disappointment for the Bruins, even if getting to this point on the eve of the Stanley Cup Playoffs felt improbable.
To take absolutely positively nothing away from Boston, the odds of having the Eastern Conference part like the Red Sea the way it did next season and beyond is a downright pipe dream. Not having to go through Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals or Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins -- whose teams combined to win each of the three previous Cups, mind you -- or the President’s Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning is the kind of break usually reserved for another team in this region that plays its home games in Foxboro.
Even if the Bruins have been outplayed in chunks this series, they still have the best player between the two teams in goalie Tuukka Rask, who tilts the scales in Boston’s favor for tonight’s winner-take-all affair on Causeway Street.
But the puck hardly stops with Rask, who appears to be on his way to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy regardless of the outcome.
One can’t help but feel as though Boston’s “Perfection Line” of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, which has been average -- at best -- for large portions of this series, particularly at 5-on-5 play, is ready to explode.
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Signs of life existed in Sunday’s decisive win in Game 6. Marchand, who maintains a two-point lead over Ryan O’Reilly as the leading scorer in these Stanley Cup Playoffs, had a 5-on-3 goal to break open the scoring in Game 6. It was the kind of goal Marchand wasn’t scoring in any situation earlier in the series; his first goal since Game 1 ended a nearly two-week drought in which Marchand got way too cute with the puck in the offensive end, opting for extra drop passes which more often than not simply weren’t there.
Pastrnak has been up and down the entire postseason, let alone just the Cup. His goal at 14:06 of the third period, making it 4-1 Bruins, demonstrated why he’s one of the most pure goal scorers in the NHL.
Unlike Marchand, Pastrnak has just looked plain lost at times. Had he taken a shot immediately upon receiving the puck from Marchand on his goal, perhaps Jordan Binnington could have made the save which would have kept the Blues alive.
Instead, Pastrnak’s fake shot took Binnington out of his skates, giving himself a wide open net to bury just his second goal of the series and indicate he’s ready to heat back up one final time this spring. (As an aside, Binnington has been Jekyll and Hyde for the Blues this series. Marty Brodeur one day, Hannu Toivonen the next).
That leaves just Bergeron, who’s clearly not playing at 100 percent. To state the obvious, the Bruins won’t play another game that counts in the standings until October. If there’s one player who knows how to leave it all on the ice, it’s Bergeron, who played in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final with a hole in his lung.
Zdeno Chara, who leads all skaters in plus/minus this postseason at plus-12, didn’t return from a nasty facial injury at age 42 just to lose. He may already have a Cup to his credit, but he also knows what it’s like to lose one, too.
Ditto for Marchand and Bergeron, as well as David Krejci -- speaking of whom, after leading the playoffs in scoring in both 2011 and 2013, has gone AWOL. He doesn’t have a goal since the Columbus series. One might say he’s due.
Experience in situations like these can be overstated, both for better or for worse, in all sports. If experience was the be all, end all, would the Patriots have lost Super Bowl LII to the Philadelphia Eagles? Would the Golden State Warriors be on the brink of elimination in the NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors right now?
There’s something to be said about having been there and done that in hockey, however. The Penguins knocked out the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators in their two Cup wins in 2016 and 2017, respectively, two teams that had never been to the final. Their back-to-back appearances came eight years after Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang’s first trip to the final, in 2008, when they lost to a Red Wings team that had won four Cups in the past 11 seasons. When the teams met in a rematch the following spring, the Penguins prevailed, branding them as a winning outfit that bided its time before adding on more championships.
The Bruins, though constructed quite differently than Pittsburgh, will have followed a similar path in winning a championship, underachieving for several seasons and then getting back to the top of the mountain with their nucleus intact.
Boston isn’t going to win the Stanley Cup tonight because of something another team has done, of course. Starting fast -- preferably by scoring first -- is essential if the Bruins want to cue the Duck Boats later this week. I’d go so far as to say the team that scores first tonight will win Game 7.
Boston may be getting outplayed in stretches by St. Louis this series, but that’s in large part due to its players underachieving more than anything the Blues are doing schematically. That ends tonight.
The Bruins were a better, more consistent team than the Blues from start to finish this season. For one final game, they’ll play like it and become Stanley Cup Champions once again.