I’ve got a sportswriter’s confession. A grumpy one.
My upbringing was in the St. Louis area, so I’ve come to know the sports culture in my native city to some extent. It’s not all peaches and cream – nor can we expect nothing but bouquets and good wishes from boiled-in-oil Beantown hockey fans during the Stanley Cup Finals. But I was surprised to see a journalist write recently that he had met nothing but smart, good-natured, level-headed NHL fans from the Gateway City in his numerous travels there…fans who are welcoming to outsiders.
A-hem. Ahem, ahem. “Welcoming to outsiders.” Yeah, just like the guys on the ice.
I seem to remember from going to face-offs at the St. Louis Arena that it was dangerous to wear Chicago Blackhawks gear to the restroom. (Not that I ever tried that, though I was known for dressing incongruously at sporting events.) For all I know, it’s just as bladder-squeezing a scenario for visiting Chi-Town fans at Enterprise Center these days.
For years, St. Louis hockey was caught in the kind of corporate malaise that helped the (former) St. Louis Rams pitch a tent on the Mississippi River and then leave when the dollars dried up. Don’t let NHL fans from Missouri and Illinois tell you that they didn’t criticize Blues head coach Craig Berube when a cellar team failed to immediately turn things around under his watch in 2018, or call the National Hockey League “a garage league for losers” on talk radio while the club floundered. They always do that.
But maybe it’s time to turn over a new leaf. A contentious, fisticuff-filled NHL season has seen the playoff elimination of President’s Cup teams and Stanley Cup betting favorites, but the final 7-game series will be waged between the Bruins and the Blues – 2 clubs woven into the fabric of Midwestern and East Coast sports culture.
You can’t catch dolphin tuna in warm, brackish waters next to either venue hosting final series of 2019 – all due respect to Carolina and Tampa Bay, but Lord Stanley is smiling on a pair of bona-fide, old-school ice hockey towns this spring.
Boston vs St. Louis: Tale of the Tape (and the Odds)
The Bruins come into the Stanley Cup Finals as substantial favorites. Sportsbetting.ag’s line on the Eastern Conference champs to win Game 1 at TD Garden is (-157) and the site’s “series price” market on Boston is a slender (-166).
Beantown’s skaters have shown a lot to give bettors confidence over the past few weeks. Bruce Cassidy’s team survived a 7-game war with the Toronto Maple Leafs, emerged victories in a tense, tide-turning Game 5 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and finally swept the Carolina Hurricanes in 4 straight to earn a long rest before the finals begin on Monday.
Numbers at other NHL betting sites reflect a similar confidence in “Spokes.” The Original-Six franchise is a straight (-160) and (-160) to win Game 1 and prevail in the series at Bovada Sportsbook, which does not give the Blues quite as much of a payoff with a win on Monday (+140) as does Sportsbetting.ag’s underdog moneyline of (+142).
MyBookie’s series price for the underdog Blues is OK at (+145), but Sportsbetting.ag’s line in the same market is also running a tad fatter at (+146).
Are bookmakers underestimating the St. Louis Blues because of a lousy fall and winter of 2018, the same as Arsenal has been down-valued as a Europa League wager thanks to the Gunners’ struggles on the back line on Christmas?
Furthermore, does the fact that the Gateway City has never won a Stanley Cup – and went through a long time span practical ineligibility to contend for one – give gamblers pause as their peer over the lines in May of ’19?
Handicappers can’t be historians. If the Blue Note’s foul winter can be brushed-aside in favor of the delightful tunes a victorious Western Conference champ is singing now, then perhaps the Stanley Cup Finals are as much of a toss-up as they appeared to be last season.
On the other hand, you never want to just guess that the lines are mispriced – we’ve got to analyze.
It’s clear that the betting public sees a weakness in the Blues’ magnificent charge for the grail – something that the Bruins are made to exploit this season.
As Bill Clement likes to say about puck-movement with a man-advantage, where’s Waldo?
First and foremost, handicappers influencing the NHL lines are looking between the pipes.
St. Louis goaltender Jordan Binnington did not even partake in a full National Hockey League season in 2018-19. But unlike Cory Schneider of Team USA, another effective NHL goalie who found himself in the AHL for a stint this season, the minor leagues were Binnington’s bread and butter until Berube took over for the Blues.
Binnington is 25, but had only gotten a tiny blush of regular-season NHL action prior to this season, stopping pucks for clubs like the Chicago Wolves and yes – the Providence Bruins. He racked-up a 24-5 W/L mark after a late-season NHL call-up and has been terrific in the playoffs, minus some overly-brave puck-handling that might land him in trouble in a fatigued OT playoff scenario sometime.
He’s only posted a .917 save % in the 2018-19 postseason. But the GK allowed a measly 2 goals to the powerful San Jose Sharks in the final 3 games of the Western Conference finals.
Meanwhile, Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins is as respected and as experienced an NHL netminder as you could ask for in a moneyline wager. Rask took the Spokes on a 22-game romp through the postseason in 2012-13, and has posted another dazzling save % of .942 in 3 playoff series.
Rask’s stats, however, could be slightly “inflated” (or “deflated,” since for goalies, less is more) by a phenomenon in the Boston-Carolina series that I was stunned to hear NBC analysts not catching. As Game 3 and Game 4 unfolded as triumphant wins for the Bruins, the announcers were saying that the Hurricanes looked dominant, and couldn’t figure out why Carolina wasn’t scoring.
I knew why they weren’t scoring. They were anxious, squeezing sticks, playing with “panic at heart” as hockey old-timers like to say. Once a team is losing a Game 3 or a Game 4, they begin nervously “aiming” instead of releasing shots.
As a result, a quality opposing GK like Rask is all-but impenetrable.
From a hockey point of view, the 2019 Stanley Cup Finals will feature a Boston goalie whose effectiveness, stamina, experience, and focus should by-all-rights overcome the efforts of a 25-year-old rookie who tries too many weird passes from the goal crease.
But from a Vegas handicapping point of view, the Bruins are being over-valued thanks to the invisible hand (or squeezing hands) of Carolina’s snipers having gone cold in Round 3, while the Blues are being taken too lightly due to the St. Louis goalkeeper’s lack of seasoning – even though all we need to know right now is that the kid is playing lights-out.
The Defense Rests
Boston may also be a favorite thanks to the blue line. The wonderful Zdeno Chára is still skating – and crushing – people in his 40s. Meanwhile, Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy are all over the ice in the transition game.
The 4-game sweep and subsequent rest afforded to players like Zdeno is definitely a boon to any Stanley Cup finalist with age dotting the team. Maybe it will prove to be an advantage in Game 1. But it’s not as if St. Louis just played a triple-OT Game 7 against San Jose. Not only did the Blues win the Western Conference in 6 games, they made quick work of the Sharks in the final 2 meetings, and were able to start looking forward to the next series before all was said and done.
That should help a Gateway City blue liner like Jay Bouwmeester, who was quiet in the final 2 blow-out wins against the Sharks after contributing with transition-game assists throughout the regular season and postseason. The big man is 35 years old and can use the rest as much as Chára can.
Alex Pietrangelo is on fire with tape-to-tape passes, notching 11 assists in the postseason for the Blue Note.
At the very least, St. Louis is underrated as a club that could steal Game 1. The series is too evenly-matched for even a single period’s worth of nerves and ring-rust occurring without making a difference, and any blip in positioning by either blue line is likely to come from the pairings who haven’t played in a week. That factor could give STL as much of an edge in Game 1 as any “well-rested” opponent.
A Forward-Thinking Stanley Cup Handicap
Put simply, there is no truth to the idea that Boston has a better lineup of forwards than St. Louis, only statistics which are skewed by the Bruins having had a successful regular season while the Blues slumped with mismanagement and then rallied. You can’t compare the depth charts with numbers – you have only to look at reputations to realize that things could go either way.
Pundits will have fun comparing the support troops, such as centermen Oskar Sundqvist of St. Louis and David Backes – who used to wear the Blue Note – of Boston. What interest me, however, are the 1st-line names. There’s a pretty good chance that the underdogs’ top lines can out-play the favorites, especially in a modern NHL setting where all 4 lines are asked to score and check…as opposed to coaches constantly icing “muck and grind” lines to shadow and bruise the big-shot snipers on the other side.
Ryan O’ Reilly is a St. Louis skater who I call the “Kevin McHale” of the modern NHL. His stats are never those of a Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, or even a Brett Hull or Adam Oates. What O’Reilly gives the Blues organization instead is simply a dynamo in all 3 zones, an athlete who is just as comfortable in a tight checking game or a wide-open circus.
The veteran’s familiarity and comfort with any kind of pond shinny is especially valuable come playoff time. So is the pure sniping of Vladimir Tarasenko.
Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron are thrilling forwards who will cause St. Louis all kinds of trouble over 7 games. But if the Slovakian menace on the Boston blue line fails to knock-out any of the top threats on opposing forward lines, Rask may be just as deluged with zinging pucks as the inexperienced Binnington over the course of 4 to 7 games.
No hockey puck cares how many games a Stanley Cup goaltender has played in.
Blues vs Bruins: My Series Prediction and Best Bet
Tuukka Rask will probably end his career with more accomplishments and accolades than Jordan Binnington will hang up his pads having earned.
News flash – the Stanley Cup is not a career-achievement award.
Look for the deep, dynamic roster of the St. Louis Blues – and their nuclear-hot goaltender – to surprise handicappers one more time and prevail over the Boston Bruins.