Funny how, despite three of four games in this Stanley Cup final being close on paper, with one decided in overtime and two including empty-netters, we haven’t seen one true close game yet. In each contest, one team has enjoyed a distinct territorial edge. The margin in percentage of shot attempts at 5-on-5 by game: 58-42, 59-41, 55-45, 62-38. The Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues have taken turns imposing their will on each other.
The most lopsided edge in possession so far in the series came Monday in Game 4, with the Blues genuinely bullying the Bruins in a 4-2 home victory that never felt particularly close. St. Louis outshot Boston 38-23 and outhit the Bruins 44-41. Winning the physical battle naturally favors the Blues, who entered the series with 10 skaters at least 6-foot-2 and 15 skaters at least 200 pounds compared to six Bruins skaters 6-foot-2 or taller and nine skaters 200 pounds or heavier. The Blues have outhit the Bruins in three of four games this series, winning two of those three games.
It’s fair to wonder, then, if this bigger, stronger Blues team has solved a riddle. Is the key to beating Boston intimidation? This spring, the Bruins have iced 10 skaters 28 or older and have five core veterans – Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, David Backes and Zdeno Chara – aged 30 or older. It stands to reason that physically wearing this group down ups your odds of winning. So does any statistical evidence support that hypothesis?
The Bruins have been outhit by their opponent in 20 of their 21 games this post-season. They still hold a 14-6 record when outhit, of course, but they’re a darned good hockey team, good enough to be two wins away from a Stanley Cup, so that’s hardly a massive surprise. Another way to spin it: the Bruins’ opponents have outhit them in all seven Bruins losses in these playoffs. Drilling deeper, in those seven defeats, they’ve received an average of exactly three power-play opportunities per game. In their 14 victories this post-season, they average 3.21 power-play chances. None of these statistical nuggets are extreme but, when we’re splitting hairs between the Stanley Cup finalists, every little edge matters.
Before the series started, Blues coach Craig Berube talked about his team’s ability to play between the whistles and straddle the line between physical and disciplined. Evidently, he knew the correct strategy to beat Boston. It was just matter of deploying it. The Blues got burned in Game 1, for instance, when they took five minor penalties, and they got torched for four power play goals on four Bruins chances in Game 3. But if you outhit the Bruins and find a way to do it cleanly, odds are you beat them.
The code has been cracked. It’s scrawled on the blackboard for everyone to see. But, as has been the case throughout these playoffs, executing the formula isn’t easy. Especially when the Bruins head home, where they do a tremendous job inflaming opponents.