No matter how many superstars a team has at its disposal, no one wins the Stanley Cup without transcendent goaltending.
Remember, the difference between teams in the Finals is often marginal; a bad hop here, a bad penalty there can beckon doom. What can widen that gap is a hot goalie who absolutely refuses to be beaten.
The Boston Bruins understand this. They won the Stanley Cup in 2011 mainly because goalie Tim Thomas was impenetrable. So they certainly were watching when St. Louis Blues coach Craig Berube yanked his goalie in the second period of Saturday’s 7-2 loss in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Perhaps the Blues had a soft spot after all.
As the teams prepared for Monday’s Game 4, an obvious question floated around: Was Saturday’s beating a sign that rookie Jordan Binnington had finally come back to earth? And if he had, how could the Blues survive it?
Binnington allowed five goals on just 19 shots on Saturday. That’s not very good, especially in front of a boisterous home crowd celebrating its first Stanley Cup Finals game since 1970.
But while most of the focus was naturally on him, especially as he skated to the bench after being pulled for the first time in career, his teammates reacted as one might suspect. They blamed themselves for putting him in a bad situation.
I don’t think we played well enough in front of him,” center Ryan O’Reilly said. “He made some huge saves early that gave us a chance. We just didn’t play our usual selves the way we defended, and that’s hard on any goalie. There’s not much you can do when you give them that many PPs (power plays) and that many opportunities. It’s not him; it’s the guys in front of him. We have to do a better job.”
O’Reilly was right. Three of the goals against him came on power plays. One was off a redirection by a Bruins player and another clipped Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester before beating Binnington. You can hardly blame those two goals on the kid.
The Blues are counting on Binnington to be calm about all of this, just like he has been in the playoffs. During the season, he was 12-2 following losses with a .937 save percentage.
In the postseason, he has won six of the eight following defeats (1.84 goals against), the most notable his Game 4 win over St. Jose in the Western Conference final after the Blues lost Game 3 in overtime when the officials missed an obvious hand pass in their defensive zone. Only five goalies in history have more wins after defeats in the postseason.
Still, he has allowed five first-period goals in the last two games. His save percentage .737 in Game 3 was abysmal, by far the worst in his career.
“Sometimes it’s not going to go your way,” Binnington said. “It’s a long series. We’ve come this far. We have to regroup and come back at them for next game.”
“I gotta be better. I gotta do a better job giving my team a chance to win. They scored three goals in the first. That’s never good. They’re a good hockey team. We have to get back to our game, stay focused.”
There is no doubt Game 4 on Monday will tell the tale. If the Bruins win, their road sweep of the Blues will put them in a fabulous position to lift the Stanley Cup since their goalie, Kuukka Rask, has been sensational.
Here’s a sneak peek into how Binnington was thinking on Saturday. With the Blues trailing 4-0 in the second period, he bumped Rask as the two were skating to their benches following a TV timeout. He was pissed.
“It was a 4-0 game. I wasn’t happy. It’s how I reacted. It’s a long series, right?” he said. “It’s something I did, and we’re moving on.”
The Blues need to stay out of the penalty box or run the risk of betraying Binnington once again. The Bruins scored on all four power-play opportunities on Saturday and it took only four shots to do it. They were both lethal and quick.
“We’ve got to keep this thing 5-on-5,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. “We gave them too many chances early on. Five-on-five we actually did a pretty good job, it’s just a matter of keeping them off that power play.
Berube said there was no chance he would bench Binnington Monday. And that’s the proper thing to do and say. If the goalie was benched, it would convey the message the Blues were suddenly panicking, lacking self-confidence.
Since the Blues lost that devasting game to San Jose, Binnington had stopped 130 of 137 shots in the next five games (1.39). He can deliver. He has proven it countless times since April 3 when he took the job from previous starter Jake Allen.
“My confidence level’s really high [in Binnington],” Berube said. “Five goals he allowed, so he had seen enough. So we just wanted to pull him and get him ready for the next game.”
As the Blues approach the crossroads of a series that would earn them their first league championship, their future will depend on a rookie’s ability to turn a bad night into a magnificent new day.
“Your approach is the same,” he said. “It’s the Stanley Cup Final. Lots to play for. You prepare the same way. Believe in your teammates. And believe in yourself. Gotta do your job.”