Defensemen have played a critical role in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues. With the best-of-7 series tied heading into Game 5 at TD Garden on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVA), that trend, if it holds true, should bode well for St. Louis.
Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo has excelled in the postseason, but especially in this series. In four games against the Bruins, the Blues have controlled 61.40 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts when Pietrangelo has been on the ice. That includes a dominant performance in Game 4 in which the Blues controlled 74.07 percent of the shot attempts with him on the ice, a game in which he played 29:37, 23:19 at even strength. Pietrangelo also had two assists, including one on the game-winning goal by Ryan O'Reilly.
Pietrangelo has been more active offensively during the Cup Final; 13 shots on goal in the series is the most among defensemen. His rate of 3.25 shots on goal per game during the Final is higher than his rate during the regular season (2.37) or through the first three rounds of the playoffs (2.89).
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St. Louis' defense pair of Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester has been tasked most often with trying to stop Boston's top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, and they have been relatively successful.
The Bruins' top line has yet to score at 5-on-5 in the series; Marchand is the only one of the three with a goal, and it was into an empty net late in the Bruins' 4-2 win in Game 1. Bouwmeester (57.27 percent) and Parayko (54.63 percent) have positive shot-attempt percentages despite their tough matchups. Neutralizing Boston's best players at even strength is no easy task, so full credit to Parayko and Bouwmeester for their ability to do so through the first four games of the series.
Video: BOS@STL, Gm3: Parayko banks in PPG off defender
An ability to maintain this advantage would go a long way toward a possible Blues victory.
The St. Louis defense also received a boost in Game 4 when Vince Dunn returned to the lineup. The 22-year-old was hit in the face by a slap shot against San Jose in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final on May 15. He was effective in his return, with the Blues generating 14 shots attempts with Dunn on the ice at 5-on-5 and zero against.
The performance and health of the Blues' defensemen stands in stark contrast to what is happening with the Bruins' group of defensemen.
In the first two games of the series, Matt Grzelcyk led the Bruins with a 68.18 shot-attempt percentage. But the 25-year-old defenseman sustained a concussion when he was hit by Blues center Oskar Sundqvist in the first period of Game 2, a hit for which Sundqvist was suspended one game by NHL Player Safety. Grzelcyk has missed the past two games and remains in concussion protocol, according to coach Bruce Cassidy, but practiced in a non-contact jersey Wednesday and could return for Game 5.
Zdeno Chara did not practice Wednesday and his status for the rest of the series is unknown. He was hit in the face by a shot by Blues forward Brayden Schenn during the second period of Game 4 and did not return.
Even before being injured, Chara and partner Charlie McAvoy were having difficulty in the series. Primarily matched against the Blues' top line of Schenn, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, the Bruins have controlled 39.82 percent of 5-on-5 shot attempts with Chara on the ice, and 40.00 percent with McAvoy on the ice.
Video: BOS@STL, Gm4: Tarasenko buries rebound from the slot
John Moore replaced Grzelcyk in Games 3 and 4 against the Blues but had a shot-attempt percentage of 27.27.
If Grzelcyk and Chara are out for Game 5, the Bruins may be forced to dip deeper into their reservoir of extra defensemen. Veteran Steven Kampfer is the most likely candidate to play in Game 5, but it would be his first game since Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Carolina Hurricanes on May 9, when he replaced the suspended McAvoy. Kampfer scored a goal in that game.
Urho Vaakanainen, the No. 18 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, played his only two NHL games with the Bruins in October. Cassidy said Wednesday that it would be a big ask to call upon Vaakanainen at this stage of the season.
The Bruins' most successful defensemen in the Cup Final has been Torey Krug. He's the only Bruins defenseman to play in all four games and have a positive shot-attempt percentage above 50 percent (51.08). He also is tied with Marchand for the playoff lead with 11 power-play assists.
McAvoy (24:24), Krug (22:02) and Brandon Carlo (22:02) lead the Bruins in ice time during the playoffs. The challenge facing them is whether they will be able to raise their collective games, under trying circumstances, to give the Bruins a chance to win two more games.
St. Louis has had an advantage at defense through the first four games of the Cup Final. With injuries hitting the Bruins defense, that advantage could be a determining factor in the rest of the series.
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