In any series, you need your best players to be your best players.
When you’re going up against two top lines as good as the Bruins’ and Blues’ best trios, that’s even more important because any headway you can make up against those guys is going to pay off big time.
For much of this series, it was the Blues’ group of Brayden Schenn between Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko making hay against Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. Famously, Pastrnak’s goal late in Game 6 was the first time Boston’s best boys had cobbled together at 5-on-5 in the entire series.
Granted, they previously filled the net in Game 4’s power-play extravaganza, and again early in Game 6, but they were being firmly bullied in almost every other situation for the entire series. That was obviously a bit of a surprise because this year was finally the one in which the moniker “The Perfect Line” stuck for the group that’s reliably been the best in hockey over the last four or five years. Things were so bad early in the series that Bruce Cassidy wisely pulled the chute and got Bergeron et al away from Schenn’s group because they were just getting speedbagged.
Not what you want from your shutdown line, to be sure. And worse, even matched up as they often have been against lesser competition, the possession game came in fits and starts and the scoring, not at all.
That all changed on Sunday night, though, as the most common opponents the Perfect Line faced were Craig Berube’s best. And hell if the Bruins didn’t crumple them up and toss them effortlessly into the nearest bin. With Marchand on the ice at 5-on-5, Tarasenko, Schenn, and Schwartz generated 0.03 expected goals on a single shot attempt — a shot on goal from a mile out — in about seven minutes of head-to-head competition. Pastrnak fared even better. Bergeron, who wasn’t on the ice for the Pastrnak goal, about the same.
It would be silly to say the Blues were lucky to get the better of this matchup early in the series. So comprehensive was their subjugation of the Perfect Line that it couldn’t have been a fluke. But all along you had to feel that, as long as one or two or even all three of the Bruins’ best forwards weren’t in some way injured, the tide simply had to turn. These guys are too good to go a whole series with that little impact on the game at 5-on-5.
And so they didn’t. In a secondary matchup, Ryan O’Reilly’s line were similarly effective against them as the top line was earlier in the series, but that was only in about three minutes of mixed-line play, rather than a conscientious decision on Berube’s part. But it was hardly enough to paper over the dominance they enjoyed for the majority of their full-strength minutes.
Of course, it was a bad night for the Blues’ top line no matter who they faced. Sure, the Perfect Line caved them in, but so too did David Krejci’s (and there’s another guy who for the most part has done little to nothing in this series). God, Schenn lost the head-to-head matchup against Karson Kuhlman, getting outshot 6-3 at full strength. Tarasenko and Schwartz fared little better. They really only took care of business against Marcus Johansson, and that was a tertiary matchup at best, about two and a half minutes’ worth of play.
And when these guys can’t score at 5-on-5, it’s a real problem because they’re sure as hell not scoring on the power play. Put that down to Tuukka Rask to a large extent, obviously; he’s conceded just one goal on 34 power-play shots. And granted, the top line is broken up on the power play, which doesn’t help. Schenn and Schwartz are on the second unit with David Perron, Vince Dunn and Alex Pietrangelo, while Tarasenko is with Tyler Bozak, O’Reilly, Pat Maroon and Colton Parayko.
Those groups don’t seem ideal given the lack of success they’ve enjoyed; at this point in the season, you’re not trying to keep all your eggs out of one basket, or at least you shouldn’t be. The top unit should be 4F/1D with the top line, O’Reilly as the extra forward, and Parayko as the D, and you don’t let them come off the ice until they score or the guy comes out of the box.
But you don’t even have to talk about hypotheticals, because the bigger problem is it seems the Perfect Line came alive at the exact right time, and now the Blues have one game left to figure it out. The best line in hockey got up off the mat and promptly powerbombed the Blues onto their necks like they were a three-headed Joe Thurman.
Even if you think their newfound dominance was a fluke, at this point Bergeron’s line only has to be lucky against Schwartz, Schenn, and Tarasenko one more time.
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