The St. Louis Blues had three good shifts in the first period. That was all they needed.
The first two were, well, their first two, and even those come with a qualifier. They spent a ton of time holding the puck and pressuring the Boston Bruins in the offensive zone, but they barely attempted any shots at all and only got one on net.
The other was after about 16 straight minutes of the team looking a hell of a lot like a team that was in last place on Jan. 1. Who but Ryan O’Reilly — naturally the Conn Smythe winner — led the first St. Louis push in the face of immense Boston pressure and tipped home a point shot to turn the game on its ear.
A long, arduous 43:13 later, the Blues won their first Stanley Cup in franchise history by a deserved 4-1 scoreline.
You could perhaps feel the O’Reilly goal coming, though, because much like the first period of Game 5, Boston had about a million looks, about half a million shots on goal, about a quarter-million rebound chances, and did absolutely nothing with them. A puck over the glass penalty gave way to a dominant power play that gave way to a long stretch in which the Blues were turning the puck over in their own end (though, in a testament to the utility of relying on the league’s real-time stats, they weren’t credited with a single turnover in the first period).
And hell, the Blues’ second goal wasn’t even on a good shift. They got a quick rush, the Bruins made two or three bad reads, and Alex Pietrangelo came up with a gorgeous goal to double the lead with less than 10 seconds to go in the first period.
The rest of the way, the Blues threw the game in lockdown mode and the result was never really in doubt.
Whether you want to call it a brutal meltdown by the Bruins or an epic attempt at getting up off the mat by St. Louis, both seem fair. Attempts were 22-8, shots were 12-4, scoring chances were 9-5, high-dangers were 6-3 and none of it mattered. Frustrating, bend-but-don’t-break hockey set in.
It truly shouldn’t have been that way: Jordan Binnington faced down 12 shots and didn’t allow any goals. He did, however, allow plenty of rebounds that the team in front of him swept away far more often than not; the Bruins didn’t have many shots off rebounds, if any. He was everything the team needed him to be, though: Active, and good when challenged 1-on-1, which he was at least twice.
At the other end, it was looking like Tuukka Rask needed some Jolt Cola in his water bottle to stay awake. He faced a Jaden Schwartz shot from the faceoff circle 27 seconds into the game (not a great angle and he handled it easily), then didn’t get tested again until there was 3:20 left in the period.
The next two shots he faced were in the back of the net, though you had to say neither was his fault: An O’Reilly tip (set up by a mega hit from Sammy Blais on a 50-50 puck) and Pietrangelo going high backhand on an odd-man rush.
Fortunately for the Blues, their Keystone Kops act all but evaporated in the second period. As much as they looked jittery and overwhelmed — like they’d never played together before — in the early going, their famous structure established itself in the second, impeding the rushes the Bruins gained so easily just 20 minutes earlier.
Call it the benefit of not having to push for a goal on the counter, call it good coaching from still-interim Craig Berube, or a good roster thanks to a good team talk between periods. Whatever it was, all that menace in the Boston attack was sapped from the game, and with it much of the energy in the building unless prompted by the in-arena organist. That was true even as things opened up a bit and the game went a long stretch without a stoppage.
And while the Bruins continued to get the lion’s share of the shots on goal, few were from areas that would trouble Binnington, and the best look of the period was a wild bouncer Rask and Zdeno Chara had to clear off the line in thrilling fashion. As the period wore on, Boston had to feel the walls were closing in. They were getting solid performances from some of their good players but rather notably, not others *cough* the perfection line *cough cough.*
At 5-on-5, Boston had just eight high-danger chances, about half after the game was a mile out of reach. Patrice Bergeron had one. Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak had none. You could have been forgiven if you forgot Pastrnak was even on the roster for this one. If you want to put it another way, Jake DeBrusk had as many truly threatening looks at 5-on-5 as the entire rest of the team combined through the first two periods.
Put that down to Colton Parayko and Pietrangelo, who combined to play almost 53:30 in this win, only about two of which saw them actually share the ice. When you have two defensemen that good only sitting for one out of about six shifts, you’re going to be in a real good position to keep the puck away from the net, no matter how much pressure the other team creates. Which, again, wasn’t much as the game wore on and the Blues asserted themselves.
There was one final Boston chance with about 11 minutes left in the third period, when it was still 2-0. Joakim Nordstrom (also notably not on the first line) got a clean look in alone on Binnington, appeared to have him dead to rights, and put it right into the waiting right pad.
When that puck got stopped, everyone in the building had to simply resign themselves to the reality that Boston had indeed delivered a total no-show at home, save for the nothing-to-show-for-it first period. Brayden Schenn scored to make it 3-0 about two and a half minutes later, with Pastrnak failing on the backcheck.
Zach Sanford’s insurance goal on the insurance goal’s insurance goal? Hey, why not. Matt Grzelcyk getting one back with about two minutes left? At least you can say you didn’t get shut out at home in Game 7 of the Cup Final.
But you didn’t get the Cup, and you didn’t get close to it, because you couldn’t get close to the net. The Blues played 40 exquisite minutes of lockdown defense, doing just enough to make Binnington’s job easy. That was what got them back to the playoff picture after being the worst team in the league when the calendar flipped to 2019. That was what got them through the first three rounds, as well.
So if anything was going to get them the Cup, that was going to be it. And it was. Because it absolutely had to be.
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