All roads have led back to TD Garden, where the Boston Bruins will host the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
It’s been nine months since the Bruins traveled to China for a pair of preseason games. They’ve played 105 games between the regular season and postseason, accumulating countless bumps and bruises along the way, and yet it all comes down to 60 minutes of hockey (barring overtime, of course).
If the Bruins win Wednesday, they’ll have their names etched on the Cup — much to Bruce Cassidy’s delight — and go down in Boston lore, an impressive feat given the recent success of the city’s sports teams. If they lose, their efforts will be well-respected, but they’ll mostly be remembered as the team that couldn’t clear its final hurdle.
Fortunately for Boston, there are plenty of reasons to believe the Bruins, who staved off elimination Sunday night with a 5-1 win in Game 6, will emerge victorious and hoist Lord Stanley on their home ice. So let’s explore a few.
1. Tuukka Rask
The Bruins goaltender has been sensational throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs — he might land the Conn Smythe Trophy regardless of whether Boston wins or loses Game 7 — and he’s been especially dominant in elimination games, most recently punctuated by an excellent 28-save effort in Game 6.
The Bruins have faced elimination three times, and Rask has stopped 82 of 86 shots in those games, good for a .953 save percentage and a 1.33 goals against average. In three games with a chance to clinch a series, Rask has stopped 95 of 96 shots, equating to a pristine .990 save percentage and a 0.33 goals against average.
Game 7 of the Cup Final obviously is a whole different animal, but Rask has saved his best work for the most pressure-packed situations so far this postseason. Blues netminder Jordan Binnington, meanwhile, is coming off a poor showing in Game 6 and has proven leaky at times. It’s safe to say Boston has the advantage between the pipes, much like it has all series.
2. Top-line resurgence
It’s amazing the Bruins have made it this far with the top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak being so inconsistent in the playoffs after an otherworldly regular season. The trio has been very shaky for much of the Stanley Cup Final. But that changed with a nice effort in Game 6, lending credence to the theory the line plays better as each series progresses, perhaps the result of Boston’s impressive four-line depth wearing down its opponent.
In five elimination games this postseason, Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak have combined for nine goals. They’re arguably the best line in hockey for a reason, and you could do worse than put your eggs in their basket in a winner-take-all showdown.
3. Karson Kuhlman
Cassidy plugged Kuhlman into the lineup for Game 6, and the 23-year-old rewarded his coach by ripping a wrist shot over Binnington’s shoulder for a clutch second-period goal. More importantly, Kuhlman, who hadn’t suited up since Game 3 of the Bruins’ second-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, woke up the second line, which had been invisible for much of the playoffs.
Hats off to David Backes, who’s been the consummate professional this postseason and gave the Bruins an occasional jolt with his physicality. But Kuhlman’s return to the lineup has both David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk looking reinvigorated at the perfect time.
4. Matt Grzelcyk’s return
Cassidy indicated Wednesday morning that Grzelcyk has been cleared and likely will play in Game 7, replacing Connor Clifton along Boston’s blue line. Grzelcyk has been sidelined since suffering a head injury in Game 2, so perhaps there will be some rust. But Grzelcyk’s speed has the potential to be a game-changer, especially with the Bruins struggling at times in this series to enter the zone and sustain 5-on-5 pressure.
Momentum has been nonexistent in this series, as each game seemingly has had no impact on the next. But the Blues sure looked rattled at the end of Game 6, and one can’t help but wonder whether emotions will get the best of them in enemy territory in Game 7. After all, St. Louis coach Craig Berube already suggested his team won’t hold back with Lord Stanley hanging in the balance, and that could lead to some chances for Boston with the man advantage.
The Bruins have scored on 32.8 percent of their power-play chances (24-for-73) this postseason and 30.4 percent of their opportunities (7-for-23) in this series. The Blues, whose own power play has struggled, could find themselves with a world of problems if they don’t keep their composure, for St. Louis’ penalty kill has been questionable at best.
Keep in mind: the team that scores first has won 74 percent of playoff Game 7s (131-46).
The Bruins have five players — Bergeron, Marchand, Rask, Krejci and Zdeno Chara — who were around for Boston’s two most recent Cup runs in 2011 and 2013. The veteran core, which Cassidy has leaned on heavily throughout this run, has experienced pretty much everything, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, and that has Boston well-equipped to handle the pressure of another Game 7 with hockey’s ultimate prize sitting in the back.
Chara, for one, is set to participate in his 14th career Game 7, the most in NHL history. Bergeron is playing in his 12th, Krejci his 11th, Marchand his ninth. Even Marcus Johansson, who spent seven seasons with the Washington Capitals and one-plus season with the New Jersey Devils before landing with Boston at the trade deadline, is taking the ice in Game 7 for the eighth time.
For comparison, no one on the Blues — a team that hasn’t won a title in its 52-year history — has played in more than four Game 7s.
7. Home-ice advantage
Let’s be honest: This probably is the least important of the seven reasons mentioned, for St. Louis has been an excellent road team in the playoffs (9-3) while Boston has fell flat at home on several occasions (7-5). But theoretically, it should be an edge for the Bruins, who will have the last change and an undoubtedly electric crowd in its corner.
The Bruins haven’t hosted a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final in their entire 95-year history. TD Garden will be rocking, and that extra push could be exactly what’s needed if Wednesday night’s clash evolves into the rock fight many expect.
Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images