ST. LOUIS -- When future sports analysts try to quantify the difference experience makes, they'll be able to look at the run-up to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
On Sunday we saw the difference between a team and a city that's been on the cusp of a championship before and one that was preparing for its first before actually securing the title.
Needing just one win to capture the Cup, the Blues reportedly reserved a floor of a hotel for their victory celebration. The Blues can't be blamed for what happened with the Post-Dispatch and the releasing of the congratulatory ads, but one of the ads was a victory letter from Blues chairman Tom Stillman, who should know better.
If you believe in jinxes, these were to the highest degree with a team that hasn't won in its 52-year history thinking it was going to coast to the Cup. Five decades of disappointment but still presumptuous.
You know who has been here before? Patrice Bergeron. The Bruins do-it-all center and alternate captain was instrumental in the comeback Cup championship in 2011 and he's been through the wars for more a decade and a half. He could tell what was needed with the Bruins down 3-2 on enemy ice at Enterprise Center, and he delivered before the Bruins' season-saving 5-1 win.
"He's a legend," forward Jake DeBrusk said about Bergeron. "He said some words that, I don't know if he necessarily wants me to repeat, they weren't bad words, but ... it was just about what we all dream about doing. I mean we're here for a reason and everyone that plays hockey grows up and dreams of playing in this moment and it was pretty much something around those lines. It kind of set the tone that way, made us all want to run through a wall."
Defenseman Charlie McAvoy was also empowered by Bergeron's words.
"Yeah, Patrice stepped up. He stepped up big time tonight," McAvoy said.
"Just like it's within us, the gist of it, but I mean it was exactly what we needed, it was. It was an element of what the dream is. Growing up, every one of us shares the same dream and kind of just bringing us all to a point where we can all be on the same field. We were all a little kid once, and we all wanted this bad. And I think it was just an element of savoring this moment and not letting it end tonight. And it was exactly what we needed, he stepped up. ... I mean like when he talks, you listen."
They were estimating 30,000 people packed downtown St. Louis to watch the game on the big screen and, of course, celebrate the Cup victory. After all, this is the Blues' year. They dug themselves out of last place from January through the end of the regular season. They were destined to give anthem singer Charles Glenn a triumphant send-off. They trotted out Jon Hamm and Pam from The Office again, and then had a triumvirate of Blues legends - Brett Hull, Bernie Federko and Bob Plager - get on microphones and chant "Let's Go Blues."
What could go wrong? Well first off, the Blues obviously weren't prepared to handle the pressure of trying to end the futility on home ice. They tilted the ice in their favor for much of the first period, but took a couple penalties and gave up a 5-on-3 goal to Brad Marchand. Their forecheck had its moments, but the Blues weren't able to take advantage because of Tuukka Rask's play in net and a lack of creativity and hard work on second opportunities.
Rask made 12 saves on the penalty kill alone through the first two periods and finished with 28 saves.
Meanwhile, Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington must've been wondering how the Post-Dispatch was going to fill those blank pages when he let Brandon Carlo's one-bounce shot from the right point go through him 2:31 into the third period to give Boston a 2-0 lead.
But this game was about more than Rask's play in net and the Bruins' offense showing up with three 5-on-5 goals. It was also about the Bruins not letting the Blues intimidate them. David Perron got his stick high on Zdeno Chara's jaw protector on a first-period dump-in. Moments later the two players jostled in front of the Boston net before Chara was called for interference. It was worth the penalty to send a message to Perron, and he was quiet most of the rest of the night (and obviously didn't dare go near Chara's face again).
The scrums in this series had been a clinic in the Blues executing wrestling takedowns on the Bruins. That changed in Game 6, with the Bruins doing as much of the grabbing and face washing in the scrums as the Blues. McAvoy and Brad Marchand each took a violent tripping penalty. Considering the way Rask and the Bruins penalty kill has been playing, those penalties were worth it to send a message the St. Louis can't just carry the puck around end to end unscathed. The Bruins went 4-for-4 on the kill and are now 17-for-18 in the series.
And now both sides can plan for a party for after Game 7 on Wednesday. You know the Bruins won't be getting ahead of themselves.
"It's going to be exciting. Obviously someone's going to win the Stanley Cup, so it's going to be an exciting game," Marchand said. "There'll be a lot of energy around it, but you know, we just want to try to focus on what we've done all year, which is prepare and try to play the same game. We're not going to get caught up in the excitement about it, we're just going to try to prepare and focus the same way that we did tonight."
That's how experienced teams approach do-or-die situations. The Bruins are the personification of what experience means.
By Matt Kalman