By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In a seven-game series, in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in the Stanley Cup Final, there’s very little room for error. The Boston Bruins were issued a blunt reminder of that absolute truth on Wednesday night.
It came in the waning seconds of a period the Bruins dominated by a large margin in every way but the scoreboard. Boston had landed 12 shots on goal, taking 22 shot attempts total. The Blues had managed just three shots on goal on seven attempts total.
The Blues did have a lead, thanks to a well-placed tip by Ryan O’Reilly in the slot, but the Bruins were still in a good place, despite the deficit.
That changed rather quickly as the clock ticked toward zeroes in that first period.
Brad Marchand, at the end of a minute-long shift, skated toward the Boston bench looking for a change, but he found no Bruins winger ready to replace him. Caught in between decisions, Marchand ended up stopping before turning back to the ice, even as Marcus Johansson straddled the boards as a latecomer.
Standing flat-footed, Marchand tried in vain to slow the entry of Jaden Schwartz, before heading to the bench with 12 seconds left to play in the period.
Scwartz dropped a pass back to Alex Pietrangelo, and with no left winger in the picture to stand between him and the net, the Blues captain walked directly to the goalmouth, where he lifted a backhand over the shoulder of Tuukka Rask. The puck hit the back of the net with 8 seconds left in the period.
Very quickly, a nothing play turned into an impromptu 2-on-1 in tight. The Blues capitalized, and the Bruins never really recovered.
In a flash, the Blues turned a one-goal advantage into what seemed like an insurmountable 2-0 lead heading into the first intermission. That the goal would end up standing as the game-winner in a 4-1 St. Louis victory in Game 7 of the Cup Final makes it sting that much worse.
“I thought that guy [Schwartz] was by himself, so I went for a change, and a couple of more guys jumped up into the play,” Marchand explained after holding in tears while talking about the loss. “I thought that guy was by himself. Obviously he wasn’t.”
Granted, the play still could have been saved had Rask made a Grade-A stop on Pietrangelo’s walk-in goal. Though Pietrangelo isn’t necessarily known for his moves in close to the net, Rask admitted that he could have made a better play on the puck.
“Cut back, went seven-hole,” Rask said. “Maybe I opened up a little too much. Good goal.”
Considering Rask had only seen four shots to that point, he admitted that the goal was a bit stunning to have to deal with.
“Obviously it’s shocking that you dominate a period and you’re down 2-0,” Rask said. “But there’s still 40 minutes to go, and we tried to battle back as much as we can.”
The effort may have been there for Boston, but the results certainly weren’t.
Boston managed 11 shots on goal in the second, but few were real scoring chances. Those shots came from an average distance of 57 feet out, with just one shot coming from closer than 28 feet. The Blues kept the chances to a minimum, they blocked six shots, and they got great goaltending from Jordan Binnington when it was needed.
“I think it just gives them more life,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said of the Pietrangelo goal. “I think we’re going to keep playing, we’re a resilient group, we have all year, we’ve played through a lot of stuff. You know, you get into the room and you figure the hockey gods aren’t really on your side, but they did what they had to do to put the puck in the net and we didn’t in the first period. So I think it gives them a lot of life.
“I don’t think anybody was down after the first period,” Cassidy continued. “We just knew the task at hand was going to be a challenge. We had to play a certain way and I guess we didn’t in the second period. I don’t think we played the proper way to generate offense considering the way their goaltender played in the first period. You’re going to have to get some screens and some second chances and I don’t think we did enough of that in the second period to give us some life, unfortunately.”
Cassidy couldn’t say for certain that the Bruins would have won the game if not for that mistake, but he would have liked his team’s chances.
“Probably a different game if it’s 1-0 coming out of the first, I do believe that,” Cassidy said. “I’m not saying that we would have won or we would have lost. I’m not a mind reader. But I do believe that it gave them a lot of juice for a period that they, you know, if they looked at it objectively, probably felt or should have felt that they got outplayed but they’re up 2-0 on the scoreboard and that’s all that matters.”
Whether the Bruins would have been able to recover from just a 1-0 deficit can’t ever be known. It’s possible that Binnington would have remained unbeatable in 5-on-5 play, and now that we know the result, it’s easy to imagine a game where the Blues made that 1-0 lead stick through 60.
But given how well they played through the opening 20, and given that they came back from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Blues in Game 1, they certainly had a chance to be the first team in a very long time to win Game 7 of a Cup Final despite not scoring the first goal.
But that question never had the chance to be answered, after the Bruins paid the price for a bad mistake at a bad time.
“Yeah,” defenseman Charlie McAvoy said. “That one sucked.”