By the time the Stanley Cup Final begins in Boston on May 27, the Boston Bruins will have had 11 days off between the Eastern Conference Final and the Cup Final. With the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks knotted at two games apiece heading into a Game 5 matinee in San Jose Sunday, the earliest he Western Conference Final can end will be Tuesday in Game 6 at St. Louis. If necessary, Game 7 would be back in San Jose on Thursday. That gives us some time to scout the potential opponents for the Bruins.
St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues have been playing with house money since January 3rd when they sat in the basement of the Western Conference. That’s when the Blues called up goalie Jordan Binnington from the AHL, and he and the Blues never looked back, staging one of the most amazing second half turnarounds in NHL history. Binnington has been the calming force behind St. Louis resurgence in the Western Conference. He has carried his regular season momentum into the playoffs, and nothing seems to phase the 25-year-old rookie netminder as he has been clutch and hardly ever falters from pressure situations as his playoff run has shown. It’s no wonder Binnington – along with teammate Jaden Schwartz – is currently a favorite for the Conn Symthe Trophy, and if he and the Blues advance, the Stanley Cup Final could feature one heck of a goalie duel between Binnington and fellow Conn Smythe favorite, Tuukka Rask.
If the Bruins end up playing the Blues, they will need to somehow rattle the almost always calm and collected Binnington. Should they succeed at doing so, they will have to continue to find new ways to shake him off his game because Binnington rarely has two straight bad games. After 15 losses (regular season and playoffs) Binnington holds a record of 12-2-1. On that note, Bruins goalie coach Bob Essensa – or ‘Goalie Bob’ as he’s affectionately known – likely has the Bruins players watching plenty of videos to zero in on situations where Binnington has been rattled.
The Bruins will also need to prepare for the Blues’ depth scoring. The Blues and B’s are similar in the fact that both teams have the ability to roll four lines throughout an entire game. St. Louis can throw speed at a team with their first two lines, but also can play a physical game with the bottom two lines. Heading into Game 5 Sunday, the fourth line of the Blues had been 11 points (four goals, seven assists).
San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks bring a different element than the Blues. San Jose relies heavily on their defense to generate the team’s offense. Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, Justin Braun, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic continue to be a force from the blue line for the Sharks. Karlsson is showing exactly why Sharks GM Doug Wilson traded for him just prior to training camp as he had 14 assists and 16 points in 18 playoff games heading into Game 5. However, there was some uncertainty around Karlsson’s health heading into Game 5 as he reaggravated a groin injury in Game 4 and did not appear to be himself. He missed half of the third period before he returned late in the third to try to get the equalizer. If Karlsson ends up missing more games and time in the playoffs, that would be a major blow to the Sharks’ attack. Even if Karlsson is ready to go for the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins will want to attack Karlsson and test his injury out. Boston is good at pressuring the puck, and since San Jose’s breakout relies heavily on their defense, the Bruins will want to get the San Jose defensemen on their heels early and often.
Conn Smythe favorite Logan Couture has been on fire during the playoffs with 14 goals and 20 points. He is the straw that stirs the drink for San Jose to quote Reggie Jackson. Everything on the ice goes through Couture. Not only can Couture score, but he can set up his linemates Gustav Nyqvist and Timo Meier. While San Jose has a good second line, they have not been as productive as the top line for San Jose. If the Bruins can shut down Couture, Boston has a good chance of winning.
The Bruins have the best power play in the playoffs, but the Sharks are not too far behind. San Jose has a power play conversion rate of 18.8 percent. With all the weapons San Jose can throw at the Bruins, Boston’s penalty kill will need to be superb again. The Sharks penalty kill is not too shabby either as they operate at an 81-percent rate with two shorthanded goals heading into Game 5.