The Boston Bruins ended their historic regular season with an otherworldly 65-12-5 mark.
On Monday, they’ll enter Game 1 of their first-round series with the Florida Panthers sitting at 0-0.
Given the 42-point disparity in the standings, the Bruins will enter as the clear favorites. But the Panthers pose as a worthy divisional adversary to Boston’s Stanley Cup hopes.
The Bruins and Panthers split their four-game series in the regular season. Both teams earned their victories in front of their home crowds, with the Bruins earning a 5-3 win on Oct. 17 and a 7-3 victory on Dec. 19, and the Panthers earning a 5-2 win on Thanksgiving Eve and a come-from-behind 4-3 OT triumph on Jan. 28.
Florida was only one of two teams to earn two victories against the Bruins this season. They’re the lone squad among the 16-team playoff field to accomplish that task.
What will it take for this year’s top team to advance past last year’s Presidents’ Trophy recipients? Here are a few keys as the Bruins and Panthers embark on their first postseason matchup since 1996.
Deliver quality and quantity against Florida’s goaltending
The Panthers envisioned Sergei Bobrovsky as their franchise netminder after inking him to a mega deal in the summer of 2019. The former Blue Jacket hasn’t encountered the smoothest of transitions over the past four seasons. Instead of remaining a potential Vezina candidate, Bobrovsky now finds himself in a goaltending platoon under Paul Maurice.
With Bobrovsky missing time to illness in late March, Alex Lyon took over the reins of the Florida net. The former Yale product filled in admirably over the last few weeks of the regular season, backstopping the Panthers to their fourth consecutive playoff appearance.
Lyon made one appearance against the Bruins this season, stopping 37 of 40 shots during Florida’s OT win in late January. But the 30-year-old is about to enter new territory as the Game 1 starter.
The Panthers finished with a 6-1-1 mark in their final eight games. Lyon posted savvy numbers during that stretch, notching a .942 save percentage and a 1.94 goals-against average.
Between playoff inexperience and a shaky Bobrovsky, the Bruins shouldn’t hesitate to test Florida’s goaltending. At times late in the season, Boston’s four trios opted to look for a perfect play rather than firing a shot toward the net.
The Bruins embrace earning those gritty playoff-like goals at this time of year. With the tighter checking nature of playoff hockey and a reliable core ranging from Patrice Bergeron to Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, David Krejci, Jake DeBrusk and Charlie Coyle (to name a few), the Bruins shouldn’t deviate from their blue-collar work ethic against Florida’s defense goaltending.
The Panthers had to overcome their defensive hurdles behind a potent offense. They’ve generated a good chunk of their offensive output behind their quick transition game and a stingy power play. But their blue-line structure tends to result in their goaltenders facing multiple quality shot attempts per night.
Simply put, the more shots against Lyon or Bobrovsky, the better the Bruins’ chances.
Continue the upward trajectory on the power play.
The Bruins power play in 2011 wasn’t powerful by any means. For a good chunk of the season’s second half, the 2023 version resembled Boston’s inept man advantage from their last Cup-winning squad.
The 2011 Bruins put forth a respectable showing with their man advantage opportunities in the Cup Final in Vancouver. And now Jim Montgomery’s bunch may have turned the corner with their power play.
Following a stagnant 11-for-92 showing during the first three months of 2023, the Bruins finished their historic campaign with a 6-for-19 run on the man advantage. That trend could benefit them in Round 1 against a bottom-tier Panthers’ penalty kill.
With potent weapons like a 60-goal scorer in Pastrnak; a robust net-front presence in Jake DeBrusk; a stingy bumper and half-wall tandem in Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron; and Hampus Lindholm running the point; the Bruins have a steady top unit in place to take advantage of Florida’s struggling kill. Between Pastrnak’s one-timer at the left face-off dot and Bergeron’s knack for finding space in the slot, the top power-play unit will have plenty of setups to work with.
The Bruins could find themselves with extended power play chances during Round 1. The Panthers ranked third in the league with the most times shorthanded at 292, trailing only the Arizona Coyotes and Ottawa Senators.
Limit Matthew Tkachuck’s impact.
Amid their work in progress, the Panthers received steady contributions from Matthew Tkachuk’s first season in the Sunshine State.
Tkachuk arrived from Calgary as advertised. The skilled and gritty power forward compiled a Hart finalist-caliber season, notching 109 points on 40 goals and 69 assists in 79 games. He also logged 123 penalty minutes, engaged in a trio of fights, and earned a two-game suspension for poking former LA Kings netminder Jonathan Quick in the face with a stick during an early-November incident.
The second-generation Tkachuck can spark his club at any moment. They have solid depth up the middle to complement Tkachuk’s well-rounded skill set, including former Selke winner Aleksander Barkov, Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Reinhart.
Limiting Tkachuk’s damage could serve as a good omen. Over 79 games, the seven-year veteran averaged less than a point per game in Florida’s losses, tallying 13 goals and 20 assists in 39 Florida setbacks. That pales to the 27 goals and 49 assists he compiled during the team’s 40 wins.
Tkachuk remains a foundation for Florida’s future. Yet, a year after sporting one of their deepest teams in franchise history, the Bruins possess a much deeper bottom six and defensive lineup in this first-round series.
They’ll have their hands full against Tkachuk. But the Bruins should feel fairly confident even if Tkachuk delivers with timely momentum swings.
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