It's all come down to Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues. It's time to debate all the hot topics heading into the final showdown, including keys to victory for each team, the players currently ahead for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, and who would get the Stanley Cup second after each team's respective captain.
How do the Blues turn the page from their Game 6 loss?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: They didn't play "Gloria" after Game 6 in St. Louis. So what song should they have played? While the No. 1 answer might have been the "Funeral March," I'll go with "You Can't Always Get What You Want" from The Rolling Stones. Because if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need. And as Game 6 goat (not GOAT) Ryan O'Reilly told me after the loss, maybe what they need is to have their story end on the road, where they're 9-3 this postseason.
Maybe what they also need is goalie Jordan Binnington snapping back from a subpar effort, yet again. He's 7-2 after defeats in the playoffs with a 1.86 goals-against average. Emily, what's your song on the Blues' playlist after Game 6?
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: I'm going to pick an anthem of my formative years: the late, great Aliyah's "Try Again." We know the Blues have been unflappable after losses this postseason, and heading into a hostile road environment, they just need to dust themselves off and try again. Despite Craig Berube's quotes after Game 6 -- which essentially felt like the team was just happy to be here after such a trying start to the season -- the Blues have to know they have a shot.
They've been the better team at five-on-five. They'll need to be disciplined (O'Reilly's puck over the glass that gave Boston a five-on-three in Game 6 was less than ideal) and they need to be confident in their own power play, which has slowed momentum at times this postseason. It looked much stronger in Game 6 than it has all series. Greg, what do you see as the biggest key to the game?
Wyshynski: Like you said, the Blues' best chance at winning the Stanley Cup is playing as much five-on-five hockey as possible. Rolling their four lines -- including a fourth line that'll have Ivan Barbashev back after his suspension -- is when the Blues are at their best, acting like a wrecking ball in the offensive zone and not having to defend all that much. (One of the big gripes from the Blues about their play in Game 6 was that they were too loosely structured defensively.)
It's funny: The Blues had the power play advantage in Game 6, had 12 shots on goal on those power plays, and yet you felt like that time spent on special teams didn't serve them well. So, in essence, the key to Game 7 might be how much time the Blues spend on special teams vs. even strength, and the good news for them is that it is a demonstrable fact that the fewest penalties on average in a series are called in a Game 7, as this FiveThirtyEight report noted. Emily, what has to happen for the Bruins to win the Stanley Cup?
Kaplan: I'm not sure if we can say Boston's success is contingent on any specific forward. Yes, we've expected more from the Bruins' top line (they didn't get their first even-strength goal of the series until Sunday night) but it hasn't really mattered. Bruce Cassidy even said it after Game 6: This is the year Boston has depth scoring. Heck, 21 players have scored for the Bruins this postseason. The only guys who haven't? John Moore and Tuukka Rask (and at the rate Tuukka is going in these playoffs, who knows).
But all of that brings me to my point: I see Rask as the key to this game. When he's in the zone, he has been very hard to get pucks past. The Blues need to get traffic in front of him, and sometimes even that's not enough. And Rask has been on in the three games this postseason when Boston has faced elimination: only four goals allowed (1.33 GAA) and a ridiculous .953 save percentage. Greg, are we now in a situation where Rask wins the Conn Smythe whether the Bruins win or lose?
Wyshynski: Now that we're in Game 7, there are clearly top options for playoff MVP: Rask and O'Reilly. (Although true hockey hipsters know that Logan Couture, still leading the NHL postseason with 14 goals, is the real MVP.)
But the debate here is whether Rask can still win the Conn Smythe if the Bruins lose Game 7, and there are two ways to look at this. No goalie has played as many games in a playoff year (23) while posting a better save percentage (.938) besides Tim Thomas, who had a .940 in 25 games during the 2011 Stanley Cup win for Boston. There are only five goalies in the past 30 years who have posted better save percentages than Rask in a postseason with at least 20 games played. Three of them have Conn Smythes, including Jean-Sebastian Giguere's MVP in a losing effort in 2003, which would be Rask's touchstone. And one of them is Tuukka Rask from 2013, with a .940 save percentage, just in case there's anyone out there who would dare call this a fluke.
But the other factor is when the votes are cast: with 10 minutes left in the third period. Voters submit a three-player ballot. They have the ability to submit "if/then" ballots, like "if the Blues win, here's my ballot; if the Bruins win, then this is my ballot." He's such a clear-cut choice for the Bruins, I wonder if he'll collect enough "points" in the voting to finish first if O'Reilly isn't the consensus pick for the Blues (such as if Binnington or Alex Pietrangelo are top choices on a bunch of ballots).
So, the shorter answer is: Yes, I'd name Rask the MVP, win or lose. But onto more unknown aspects of Game 7. Emily, what are some implications of this game for both teams?
Kaplan: The Blues should work out a formal deal with Craig Berube, win or lose. We're not going to see another Barry Trotz situation.
Speaking of the Washington Capitals, I wonder if the Blues -- who were so aggressive last offseason to shape this roster -- will follow suit of what Washington did last summer after winning a Cup: do everything possible to keep the band together. Does that mean re-signing veteran unrestricted free agents such as Carl Gunnarsson and Patrick Maroon to short-term deals? They also have eight restricted free agents, the biggest being Binnington. A new contract is inevitable for Binnington, but many around the league will be intrigued to see the price and term at which the two sides land. Since there are few comparables, it feels like a bridge deal is very much in play.
The Bruins have most of their veterans under contract, and will obviously work out new deals for Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy, both restricted free agents. The biggest variable on Boston's roster is Torey Krug, who hits unrestricted free agency after next season. Krug elevated his profile tremendously these playoffs as not just a talented offensive defenseman, but a No. 1-caliber, all-around defenseman, and that has driven up his price. Can the Bruins afford to keep him? Will they have to trade him? Will other suitors such as the Red Wings or Rangers emerge as favorites to land him next summer? He's the guy I'm watching.
From 1987 to 2014, Stanley Cup Final Game 7s averaged 8.6 in combined penalties. Do we go over or under?
Wyshynski: Under. Whistles will be put away. The boys, they will play.
Kaplan: Give me the under. I agree that the refs are going to let them play.
This player will definitely score a goal in Game 7:
Wyshynski: Jaden Schwartz, which I know is a dicey proposition given how Rask played in Game 6. But Schwartz was absolutely flying in Game 6, more present offensively than he was in the past few games. While "he's due" is never a good reason for one of these picks, he hasn't scored a goal in seven games, so ...
Who waves the Bruins' fan banner?
Wyshynski: I know there's heavy speculation that it's Tom Brady, but I'm holding out hope for noted Blues and Bruins legend Adam Oates.
Kaplan: I have a strong hunch it's going to be a very famous Boston-area athlete who has won a lot of championships himself and likes avocado ice cream.
Who gets the Cup second for the Blues and Bruins?
Wyshynski: For the Blues, I'll say Alexander Steen, the longest-serving Blues player, with 710 games played in St. Louis, which is sixth in franchise history. For the Bruins, it'll probably be Patrice Bergeron, but I'd really like to see 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara hand it to 5-foot-9 Torey Krug, for comedic effect given the height disparity.
Kaplan: For the Blues, I think Jay Bouwmeester gets it. For Boston, I see Zdeno Chara handing it off to Patrice Bergeron (though my pick would be Tuukka Rask).