By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Sports can be cruel. Sometimes, teams get raw deals, victims of bad breaks, unfortunate circumstances, questionable calls or just some old-fashioned bad luck.
This was not one of those times. At the end of a physical grind of a Stanley Cup Final, in a Game 7 with everything at stake, the Boston Bruins were just not good enough. As a result, the St. Louis Blues are Stanley Cup champions.
You’d be hard-pressed to make a case that the Blues don’t deserve it.
Winners of three out of four games in Boston, all of which came in varying degrees of convincing fashion, the Blues quite simply showed what a champion looks like.
The Bruins, who overcame all sorts of hurdles throughout this remarkable postseason run, never recovered from a bizarre first period in Game 7. They outshot, outhustled, outplayed, outskated and out-everythinged their opponent. For their efforts, they were stuck with a 2-0 deficit at the first intermission.
That wasn’t by chance.
Ryan O’Reilly, who became the first player to score in four consecutive Cup Final games since Wayne Gretzky in 1985, worked his way to the front of the net, screened Tuukka Rask, and redirected a simple point shot between the goaltender’s pads.
That was something that no Bruins forward could do for the entire evening.
“I don’t think we played the proper way to generate offense, considering the way their goaltender played in the first period,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said after the 4-1 loss. “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.”
O’Reilly did it despite playing with a cracked rib. He earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as a result.
The second goal came on an obvious mistake by Brad Marchand, who opted to go off for a line change with just 12 seconds left in the first period. Alex Pietrangelo scored seconds later, the result of the Bruins having no left winger to stand between the Blues’ captain and goaltender Tuukka Rask.
“I thought that guy was by himself,” Marchand explained. “Obviously he wasn’t.”
The Blues made no such mistakes.
And though Tuukka Rask was the best player in the entire NHL postseason and the best goaltender in this particular series, he was not the best netminder on this evening. Jordan Binnington, a rookie who didn’t become a starter until midseason, was at his very best in this Game 7.
From there, the Blues did what the Blues did. They limited the Bruins to perimeter chances in the second period, maintaining that two-goal lead, before pouncing with a goal midway through the third period to effectively end the Stanley Cup Final. A fourth goal by local product Zach Sanford made a 6-on-5 goal by Matt Grzelcyk mostly meaningless, as the Blues would be partying on Boston’s home ice just minutes later.
For the Bruins, it is too simple to throw out a blanket statement like “they weren’t good enough.” By some standards, their postseason performance would have been more than good enough to earn a Cup. They overcame a 3-2 deficit in the first round, a 2-1 deficit in the second round, and they forced a Game 7 after staring elimination in the face on the road in Game 6 of the Cup Final. They overcame questionable calls, missed pucks in netting, curious replay reviews, broken jaws, and obvious officiating gaffes along the way, unwilling to take the myriad excuses that various circumstances offered. They boasted a historically potent power play, they got secondary scoring from the third and fourth lines, they welcomed some surprise performances from previously unknown players, and they got stellar goaltending throughout the grueling two months that is known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Throughout, they’ve given the city and the fan base plenty to be proud of. The loss on Wednesday doesn’t erase that.
But in Game 7, with the entirety of the season on the line, they weren’t the better team. And it wasn’t even close.
“I don’t think anybody is leaving the building tonight, unfortunately, in our locker room saying they put their best foot forward,” Cassidy lamented. “Unfortunately, and that’s the whole group. We didn’t get it done at every position, coaching staff, whatever. They ended up being better than us and did what they had to do to win. It’s that simple.”
It really is.
The Bruins fought for four rounds. They made it to the final game of the NHL season. Given the way they played the first period in this Game 7, they probably deserved a better fate.
But “deserve” doesn’t often play a role in such moments. And a loss on this stage can erase much of what was accomplished in the months prior.
“Yeah, [the feeling] sunk in right away,” said defenseman Charlie McAvoy. “One side is elation, the other side is just nothing.”
A seven-month grind in the regular season, a nine-week cauldron in the postseason, a three-week slugfest in the Stanley Cup Final … and it all leads to nothing.
Sports can be cruel. Hockey can be the cruelest. The sport shows no hesitation to ever let a hard-working team know that its best sometimes is just not good enough.