BOSTON - Connor Clifton battles against Sean Kuraly in practice nearly every day, giving the rookie blue liner an up-close, inside look at what Boston's fourth-line center does best.
With that first-hand experience, one might think it would be easier to slow down the speedy 26-year-old from Dublin, Ohio. Not so much.
"I mean, it can't be done really," Clifton said when asked how to defend Kuraly. "Especially when he's doing his rink turns and you never know where he's going - and he has that big body."
The St. Louis Blues found that out the hard way on Monday night.
Kuraly once again delivered with a crucial postseason tally, notching the winner at 5:21 of the third period to lift the Bruins to a 4-2, comeback victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden. He also added an assist and helped play a critical role in shutting down the Blues' top line over the final two periods.
"He's been doing it all year," Patrice Bergeron said of the game's No. 1 star. "That line got us going, obviously, and got us the game-winner. We are a team that has relied on everybody all year and tonight was another great example."
Video: STL@BOS, Gm1: Kuraly puts Bruins ahead in 3rd
The deciding marker was Kuraly's third goal of the postseason, having also notched third-period insurance tallies in Game 7 against Toronto and Game 4 against Columbus (both goals made it 3-1 Bruins). It is an ever-growing list of clutch goals for the 6-foot-2, 213-pounder out of Miami of Ohio, who also notched the winner at the 2019 Winter Classic at Notre Dame Stadium.
"It's unbelievable," said Marcus Johansson. "I think everyone has said this, one of the strengths of this team is that we have four lines that can produce at any given time on any given night. What better time to do it than tonight?
"It's not just that [the fourth line] scored the goals, I think they led the group to take the game over in to being more physical and I think that is what won us the game."
That may very well be the case.
As Johansson pointed out, it wasn't just Kuraly's goal that proved vital to Boston's Game 1 win. Well before that, it was the trio of Kuraly, Noel Acciari, and Joakim Nordstrom that sparked the Bruins after they'd fallen into a 2-0 hole.
With Boston battling through what was some inevitable rust following their 11-day layoff, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy decided to make a switch in his matchups. After surrendering two goals to the Blues' first line of Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, and Vladimir Tarasenko, Cassidy opted to counter them with Kuraly's line instead of Bergeron's.
"This is what they do," said Cassidy. "They possess pucks, they can skate, they play simple hockey. And I think against St. Louis if you play North, especially for us being off as long as we were, we had to not get drawn into the fancy stuff, the East-West stuff.
"We needed to be a little more physical against that line and I thought they were able to deliver on that too."
Video: Kuraly buries game winner in first tilt of Final
That they were. The line brought plenty of pop - combining for 12 hits, including Acciari's game-high six - and puck possession in the offensive zone, which helped to quiet down the Blues' top offensive performers over the final 40 minutes.
"I think it shows that obviously our coach has trust in us to go out there and do that job, and we know what our job is when we're out against a line like that," said Kuraly. "It's to make it difficult for them to create any offense. They're a great line so it's tough. But the expectation from us was just play them hard and play them honest and make them earn every inch.
"And if they beat us with their skill - which will definitely happen at times - then so be it, but we're not going to let them beat us with something silly that is a mistake by us."
In the end, it was Kuraly's skill that made the difference. Heeding his coach's advice to play a North-South style, Kuraly made a spectacular rush up the ice to set up Boston's first goal. The pivot collected the puck deep in the Bruins' end and surged through the neutral zone before zipping a pass through the slot to Clifton, who had joined the rush and was charging to the net.
The feed deflected off of Clifton's right foot and by St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington to get the Bruins on the board just 2:16 into the second period and set off a stretch of four unanswered goals for the Black & Gold.
"A goal and assist, I think it was even more than that," Clifton said of Kuraly's game. "He was playing his game. He was all over the ice. He was finishing his checks. He was winning pucks back and getting pucks to the net all night and great for him. He had a great game tonight."
"That Kuraly play with Clifton got us into the game, got the crowd back into the game," added Cassidy. "All of a sudden, wow we're starting going. You know, we start skating."
Video: STL@BOS, Gm1: Clifton puts Bruins on the board
Indeed they did. Boston outshot the Blues, 18-3, in the second period and eventually tied the game on Charlie McAvoy's power-play goal midway through the frame, setting the stage for Kuraly once again.
A strong shift from the fourth line had St. Louis on its heels, as the trio worked the puck down low, before sending it up the wall to Zdeno Chara at the left point. Chara proceeded to throw a fluttering wrister toward the net that bounced off of Binnington and right to Acciari.
Acciari had his first attempt denied, but collected the puck once more and delivered a spin-around feed to Kuraly across the top of the crease. Kuraly corralled the pass with his right skate, kicked it to his stick, and ripped home a quick shot to give the Bruins the lead for good with 5:21 gone in the third.
"I think we're just trying to play as hard as we can, and the [fourth-line] role or whatever it is, is something I think that maybe other people talk about," said Kuraly. "We're just trying to play good and play as hard as we can…we've got a lot of good players on the team, so it's kind of where we're put in the lineup, and we just want to do the best that we can for the team.
"We've got a heck of a team in there, and a lot of guys that have been around for a while, so we're just trying to do the best that we can and wherever they want to put us is all good."
Video: Cassidy addresses media after Bruins 4-2 win