The 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs have been a strange one, with the top two seeds in each conference eliminated in the first round and the Cinderella-story Carolina Hurricanes advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.
But ultimately, the bracket produced a worthy championship round: the red hot St. Louis Blues against the favorite Boston Bruins.
The series begins Monday at 8 p.m. ET in Boston.
On Jan. 3, the Blues had the worst record in the NHL. They ended the season on a 38-19-6 tear to finish third in the Central Division and clinch a playoff spot. The key factors? Firing head coach Mike Yeo and installing Craig Berube as the interim. And putting a rookie goaltender in net in Jordan Binnington, who has come up huge in the postseason.
St. Louis dispatched the Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks in the first three rounds of the playoffs, emerging as an unlikely champion out of a pack of tough Western Conference teams. They upset the Jets in the first round. They battled back from a 3-2 deficit to beat the Stars. And they defeated a talented Sharks team in the conference finals, overcoming a blown call that put them down 2-1 in the series by winning the next three games to clinch their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final since 1970.
If the Blues were an unexpected candidate for the crown, the Bruins definitely thought they would be here. Boston, boasting a formidable core of stars, finished tied for the second-most points in the league. They survived in seven games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, got through the Columbus Blue Jackets in six and swept the Hurricanes, who ran out of steam against a better opponent.
Bruins have the edge ... on paper
There’s a reason why the Bruins opened as -150 favorites to beat the Blues: they are far more loaded on paper. They can score in bunches, defend at an elite level and have a stud goalie in Tuukka Rask, who has been nearly untouchable in the postseason. They have veterans such as Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara who were on the 2011 team that last won the Stanley Cup and the 2013 team that went to the final.
Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak are as good a top line as any. The Bruins have the top power play in the playoffs at 34 percent, and they also kill penalties at an 86.3 percent clip. There are very few holes in this Boston squad, and it will take an A-plus effort for St. Louis to pull off the upset.
But how can you bet against the Blues?
The thing is, though, that St. Louis has been playing A-plus hockey since the turn of the calendar. No team wants to face the red hot Blues right now — just ask the Sharks, who possess as much talent as the Bruins yet were thoroughly outplayed in the final three games of the conference final. The Blues outscored the Sharks 12-2 after dropping Game 3, clamping down San Jose’s high-octane offense.
After the series, Sharks coach Pete DeBoer admitted that the Blues didn’t give his team much room to operate. Much like the Bruins, they are physical and lock down defensively, with anchors in Colton Parayko, Alex Pietrangelo, Joel Edmundson and Jay Boumeester.
DeBoer: "The 2 hardest, heaviest teams are in the Final. Everybody talks about skill & speed, there's room for all these small players. There is a room for that. But I don't think it's an accident.— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) May 22, 2019
"There was no space. They're heavy, hard & organized. There wasn't any room."
There’s no reason to dispute that the Blues will keep this run going. Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan O’Reilly and Jaden Schwartz have scored timely goals throughout the playoffs — speaking of timely goals, St. Louis is 7-2 on the road and has scored 31 goals in nine road games to lead all playoff teams.
And to counter Rask, the Blues have Binnington, who is playing like anything but a rookie. His 1.89 goals against average led all goalies during the regular season, and he has looked like a veteran in the playoffs.
The Blues might be a lower seed and their best players may lack the name recognition of the Bruins’ stars, but by no means are they entering the Stanley Cup Final as the inferior team.
Rest vs. rust
If the final started immediately after the Blues won Game 6 on Tuesday, this might be a factor. Yes, the Bruins have had to wait 10 days between the conference finals and the championship round, but the Blues also get a five-day break.
Still, the Blues are coming off an emotional, gritty series win against the Sharks while the Bruins relatively coasted past an inferior Carolina team. That, combined with twice the layoff time, might affect the Bruins’ psyche out of the gate. And history is not on the Bruins’ side: every single team that swept the conference finals except the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks needed seven games to win the Stanley Cup. The teams that didn’t last seven games? They did not win the trophy.
Winner: St. Louis in 7. The head says Boston, but the heart says St. Louis. The worst-to-first story is too good to end one stop shy of the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup. The Bruins might seem better on paper, but — recency bias aside — there is something about this Blues team that gives them the edge.
Conn Smythe Trophy winner: Vladimir Tarasenko. It’s hard to believe that Tarasenko is already a seven-year veteran, but at 27 years old, he is now in his prime. And as the franchise player, this is his time. Tarasenko netted a point in each game in the Sharks series (eight in total). Look for him to put the team on his back and etch his name into St. Louis sports lore.
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