(Photo: Boston Herald)

By Jake Shoemaker

Before the season, I predicted a Stanley Cup Finals match-up between Boston and St. Louis. Just over a quarter of the way into the season, the two teams will meet, both playing outstanding hockey worthy of my early season prediction. Here are my predictions on the matchup as the two teams stand today:

Goaltending: Both squads pride themselves on playing great hockey on both ends of the ice, but Boston has the superstar between the pipes in Tuukka Rask. Jaroslav Halak is no slouch, but Rask’s .946 save percentage and 1.61 goals against average make him a potential difference maker in this game. In Rask’s last game against the New York Rangers he stopped 43 of 44 shots, securing the win for the Bruins despite the fact that they were outplayed. St. Louis, on the other hand, has two veteran goalies who they might play. Jaroslav Halak has been the team’s starter this year, but the Blues might turn to Brian Elliot who has been more consistent as of late, just as they did in their most recent loss to Washington. Regardless of who the Blues put in net, Boston has a distinct advantage in Rask.

Offense: The offensive battle between Boston and St. Louis is an interesting one. Both teams possess depth on the forward lines, and both teams have players who have been developing chemistry together for quite some time playing for their squads. But, in the end, St. Louis has the major difference maker in Alexander Steen. The NHL’s leading goal scorer has been a consistent, dominating force all year and he is one of 9 St. Louis players with more than 10 points. In contrast, Boston has only 7 players with more than 10 points. Both teams have a great combination of fast and physical forwards, but the advantage goes to St. Louis and the NHL’s second ranked offense.

Defense: St. Louis has the clear edge on the back end for this mid-November match-up. Although Boston has been stingy on defense, they have to be concerned about facing the NHL’s second ranked offense without two of their top four defensemen in Adam McQuaid and Dennis Seidenberg. Sure, Dougie Hamilton, Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug have contributed nicely thus far, but Hamilton and Krug are still developing their defensive game while Bartkowski is coming back from a vicious fall just two days ago. An experienced, cohesive St. Louis offense should give Boston fits. On the flip side, the Blues’ defense has been no slouch this year either, especially with regard to their offensive contributions. With Boston’s young defensemen likely playing more conservatively tonight, expect significant offensive contributions from the St. Louis blueliners who will try to get the puck on net with the hopes of beating Rask through deflections, screens or scrappy play in front of the net.

Special Teams: This category is a wash. Although St. Louis’ power play has come back to earth over the past few weeks, their 25.7% success rate is still the best in the NHL. But, as good as the Blues have been, Boston has been just as good, if not better, especially in November. The Bruins recently gave up their first power play goal all month after stringing together 33 straight penalty kills. The biggest question for the Bruins will be how their penalty kill fairs without mainstays Seidenberg and McQuaid who are both expected to be absent due to injury. On the power play, Boston has been consistently mediocre, but St. Louis has been in the same boat on the penalty kill. Don’t expect this game to be won by special teams goals – two of the NHL’s best 5 v. 5 teams will decide this game at even strength.

Momentum: Both teams have started off the season well, and both teams are in good standing within their conferences. Boston struggled a bit more to find consistency in their game right out of the gate, but at this point in the season, nobody looks forward to playing St. Louis or Boston. Both teams are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games – this one is a wash.

Outlook: Many signs point toward St. Louis having the overall advantage in this game. However, I expect Tuukka Rask to be the difference maker on Thursday night. After his wretched performance during Boston’s meltdown in Ottawa last week, Rask looked razor sharp and focused against New York. Anticipate another stellar performance from the NHL’s best goalie thus far in 2013. Although St. Louis will outshoot Boston 34 – 24, a few timely breakaways and opportune goals will earn Boston the 3 – 1 victory (after an empty net goal).

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