The Boston Bruins are one of 24 teams watching the rest of the Stanley Cup Playoffs unfold.
They didn’t envision that scenario playing out.
After their record-breaking regular season, the Bruins felt they’d be in the thick of their second-round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Instead, they’re looking on with the Florida Panthers on the verge of their first conference final appearance since 1996, highlighting the handful of intriguing storylines in Round 2.
Boston’s roster spoke to the media for the final time in 2022-23 during last week’s breakup day at Warrior Ice Arena. A week later, head coach Jim Montgomery, general manager Don Sweeney, team President Cam Neely and CEO Charlie Jacobs took to the podium at TD Garden, echoing in disbelief.
“I had a couple players at the exit meetings actually apologize, say, ‘You guys gave us a wagon of a team, and we didn’t execute.’” Neely said. “Players know when you have a chance to win and when you don’t. They knew we had a chance to win. They knew we had a chance to go deep. And for whatever reason, we didn’t play the way we played in the regular season
Frankly, it’s difficult to point the finger at any one mistake. Yet, upper management assembled one of Boston’s better rosters in recent memory only to come up short.
In historic fashion, no less.
Under Bruce Cassidy, Sweeney and Neely took the brunt of criticisms following disappointing playoff exits. This year, they assembled a Stanley Cup-caliber roster. They added more depth at the trade deadline, acquiring Dmitry Orlov and Garnet Hathaway from Washington and landing Tyler Bertuzzi from Detroit.
The costly turnovers against Florida’s aggressive forecheck kept Boston in chase mode. Even so, the B’s encountered ample opportunities to clinch the series in the last three games, only to relinquish momentum whenever they had the ‘Cats on the ropes.
The in-game decision-making hardly falls on the coaching staff. But Montgomery and the coaching staff also could’ve prevented the bleeding.
Instead of keeping Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand together upon the captain’s return in Game 5, the Bruins split their dynamic duo up, hoping to balance out the four forward trios. The Panthers gained control early, prompting a return to a normal-looking lineup during the first 20 of their 4-3 overtime loss to send the series back to Sunrise.
The Bruins could’ve tabbed Jeremy Swayman for a start in Game 5 or 6. Linus Ullmark had labored through his most extensive workload of the season. Instead, Montgomery and goalie coach Bob Essenssa waited until Game 7 to insert Swayman.
With hindsight, Montgomery wishes he made the changes sooner.
“I make the final decision, right? I’m the one that picks the starter. So it’s not Goalie Bob’s decision, but I really rely on him heavily,” Montgomery said on the Ullmark decision. “We win Games 3 and 4. So you have two days off; you think Game 5 is gonna go well.”
“Not starting with my normal lines for Game 5. I have my logic as to why it made sense, but it didn’t help us with our start, obviously,” Montgomery added of his decision with his Game 5 lineup. “So that I learned from, and I think I could have switched the D pairings on who the matchups were a little bit quicker.”
The Bruins remain a bewildered bunch. The sting remains prevalent throughout the organization.
They remain at a loss for words, just like at the bitter end of their Cup Final run in 2019. But unlike that loss to the Blues four years ago, their run in 2023 ended well earlier than anticipated.
“Frustrated. Mad. Accountable,” Montgomery said of his emotions.
Sweeney and Neely built quite the wagon, exceeding expectations during the regular season. Montgomery pressed the right buttons during the team’s run to 65 wins and 135 points.
The 2022-23 Bruins will sit atop the record books for years to come. But the collapse against the Panthers turned a potentially historic season into a punchline.
“I feel like our general manager, our team president, pressed all the right buttons to deliver the best possible team we could for this year,” Jacobs said.
The only thing the Bruins can do now is use another bitter postseason elimination as motivation. It worked for the 1995-96 Red Wings and the 2018-19 Lightning during their championship runs in subsequent seasons, with both teams repeating as champions respectively in ’96-97 snd 97-98 and 2019-20 and 2021.
But the Bruins will have their work cut out for them entering next season. Impending decisions for Bergeron and David Krejci highlight the list of Sweeney’s off-season to-do list. The eighth-year Boston will have less than $5 million of projected salary cap space at his disposal. Swayman and Trent Frederic highlight Boston’s RFA list. Orlov and Bertuzzi sit atop Boston’s UFAs slated to hit the open market on July 1.
The Bruins will celebrate their 100th anniversary in 2023-24. Whether they assemble a similar foundation to make their centennial season worthwhile is anyone’s guess.
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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