After watching his team score just two goals – both of them legitimate – in the final three games of the Western Conference final, San Jose Sharks coach Peter DeBoer made an interesting observation.
“I think the two hardest, heaviest teams are in the final,” DeBoer told reporters after the St. Louis Blues beat the Sharks in Game 6 to close the series. “Everybody talks about skill and speed and there’s room for small players, but I don’t think it’s an accident. There’s no space. They’re heavy. They’re hard. They’re organized.”
So what the heck are we supposed to do with that tidbit of information? Wait a minute. Weren’t we just talking about how speed and skill would be all the rage? If so, why are the two hardest, heaviest teams in the final and why did the Washington Capitals, another hard and heavy team, win the Stanley Cup last spring? Geez, that was quick.
Well, it’s probably because what DeBoer said needs to be taken with a bit of context. There’s no doubt the Blues are a big, heavy team, particularly on the back end. The Boston Bruins, though, are neither particularly large nor heavy, but they certainly play that way. And then there’s the fact that the two best non-goalies in this playoff tournament have been Jaden Schwartz of the Blues and Brad Marchand of the Bruins. Not exactly big guys, and they sit second and third in playoff scoring and are off to the Stanley Cup final. On the other side of the equation, you have Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames and Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a trio of waterbugs that accomplished almost nothing in the first round, scoring just a goal and two assists in a combined 13 games. So that’s all pretty inconclusive.
And when it comes to physical play, there is little doubt the Blues physically punished the Sharks, particularly early in the Western Conference final. But there was nothing off the charts about the physical approach they took to the game. In fact, of the 16 teams that started these playoffs, Boston is 10th with an average of 30 hits per game and St. Louis is 13th with 29.4 per outing. Three of the top five teams in hits didn’t make it out of the first round, but two of the bottom three teams in hits didn’t make it out of the first round either. Again, inconclusive, in part because hits are overrated as a stat and one whose application can often vary greatly.
From here, it looks an awful lot like the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins are the two remaining teams competing for the Stanley Cup, not necessarily because they’re bigger or heavier or stronger than other teams, but because they’ve found the perfect blend of physical play and toughness. The Blues went after the Sharks early in the series and established a tone, which likely wore the Sharks down and allowed the Blues to dictate the tone of play. The Bruins actually were the less physical team in their opening round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, then were able to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets because they were able to withstand and absorb the physical tone the Blue Jackets tried to set. Against the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final, it was simply a case of one team with far superior talent, depth and goaltending dominating its opponent.
There’s no doubt that big and heavy is an asset, but it seems to me that team toughness is far more important in the playoffs. And that has nothing to do with how big a player is, or fighting for that matter. Team toughness is the way the Blues were able to shake off one of the most egregious non-calls in playoff history in Game 3, when Timo Meier’s hand pass that led to Erik Karlsson’s goal put the Sharks up 2-1 in the series and could have derailed the Blues. Instead they simply went about their business and dominated the next three games, outscoring the Sharks 12-2.
Give me a team with depth of talent over size or a penchant for physical play every time. The Bruins are in the Stanley Cup final because they have the best top line in the world, but also because they’ve been getting huge contributions up and down their lineup. Charlie Coyle has six goals and he’s their third-line center. Who knew Sean Kuraly could have such a positive impact? As for the Blues, they got goals from 12 different players in the Western Conference final and have received at least one goal from 18 different players so far in the playoffs.
This final should be a compelling one because it will feature the Bruins’ explosiveness against the grinding of the Blues. But as far as establishing any trends that teams might want to follow, they are both there because they’ve overcome adversity, received a balanced attack from all sections of the lineup and benefitted from goaltenders who are the absolute top of their game. It has always been thus. And always will be.
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