The Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues seem to be separating themselves from the rest of the NHL recently, so much so that I’m betting on them meeting to square off for the 2014 Stanley Cup. The Bruins have won 12 in a row while St. Louis is 7-2-1 in their last ten games, with a shutout over Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday. With about ten games remaining in the season Boston and St. Louis are poised to finish the regular season strongly, and while it may not seem like a bold prediction to bet on the top team from each conference meeting in the Stanley Cup Finals, such a scenario has not happened since New Jersey and Colorado met in the Finals in 2001. What makes me think this year will be different from most others and the Bruins and Blues will carry their regular season success through the end of the season and into the playoffs? The answer is that both teams are amongst the deepest and most balanced teams the league has seen in some time.
The Blues were considered a favourite to contend heading into this season and have lived up to expectations. The young team has been on the cusp of entering the league’s perennially elite for a couple of years, and a deep playoff run will cinch their status in that regard. While the goaltending tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott was certainly more than adequate throughout the year – Elliott was in net today to shutout the Penguins – upgrading Halak to Ryan Miller just before the trade deadline has assured that the team has no cracks. On defense, head coach Ken Hitchcock has an arsenal of talent for any situation at his disposal. Recent gold medal winners Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester are supremely skilled and log a lot of minutes, and Barrett Jackman is a proven leader who is difficult to play against. In fact, the Blues don’t have any easy defensemen to play against – Kevin Shattenkirk is the smallest of the lot, but at 5’11” and 207 lbs he is no pushover.
Up front, the Blues epitomize the new NHL – a team that lacks a designated offensive dynamo and instead relies on an offense by committee. Ken Hitchcock is known for getting players to buy into a system that relies on responsible forwards that worry about keeping the puck out of their net before putting in the opposition’s. A surprise 30-goal season from Alex Steen and a sophomore jump from Jaden Schwartz has made this an offense that could afford the departures of Chris Stewart via trade and Vladimir Tarasenko due to injury. But when the playoffs roll around the experience of veteran agitators Brenden Morrow, Steve Ott, and Max Lapierre will make a big difference for this team. Morrow and Lapierre have each reached the Finals in their careers, and Morrow was part of the gold medal winning Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics. Playing against these guys for four to seven games will definitely take its toll on opposing forwards. And in case things get rough, Ryan Reaves is the team enforcer in charge of keeping opposing forwards in line, but he’s a modern NHL enforcer, one that doesn’t hurt his team if he steps on the ice and doesn’t drop his gloves.
While the Bruins are similarly strong from the net to the fourth line, they are a much more experienced team than the Blues, having reached the Stanley Cup Finals two of the last three years. In fact, the biggest obstacle between the Bruins and the Stanley Cup Finals may be the fatigue resulting from their recent success. In addition to last year’s Finals visit, many of the Bruins’ star players didn’t get a break during the Olympics this year – Patrice Bergeron, Loui Eriksson, and Tuukka Rask all medaled at the Games, while Zdeno Chara and David Krejci played major roles for Slovakia and the Czech Republic, respectively.
But only time will tell how much of a role fatigue will play against the B’s. Right now they are rolling along comfortably. Only two of the wins during their twelve game streak have been decided by less than two goals. Jarome Iginla is using this year to postpone an offensive decline, while Carl Soderberg has emerged as an underrated third liner that the league will likely take greater note of if the B’s go on an extended run this post season. While the importance of fisticuffs is greatly diminished in the playoffs, the Bruins have more grit than any team in the league, and it doesn’t hurt that they have three legitimate heavyweights – Chara, Milan Lucic, and Shawn Thornton – that draw regular shifts.
The teams played twice already this season, and both games required extra time, the Blues winning 3-2 in each case. Ultimately, the Bruins and Blues are successful because they have rosters of smart players that minimize mistakes, and play the type of risk averse hockey that wins games. When opposing forwards do break free they have the unenviable challenge of putting the puck behind two of the best goalies in the league in Miller and Rask. They have the luxury of rolling four strong lines, and that is the only way teams can make deep runs in the playoffs in the NHL these days. If the Bruins and Blues do face off in June it will be the first meeting between the two teams since 1970 when Bobby Orr scored the Stanley Cup winning goal in overtime before flying through the air in celebration in one of the NHL’s most famous photos. While a meeting this time around would likely be much tighter than the four game sweep in 1970, it would likely be every bit as classic.