The Stanley Cup Playoffs have never seen a team more dominant in its history than an Eastern Conference team embarking on perhaps its final opportunity for true Stanley Cup Contention. With 65 wins in 82 games, smashing NHL records for wins and points in a single season, the Boston Bruins enter the postseason with proportionally historic expectations. However, the road lying ahead will prove difficult, including the first-round matchup with the Florida Panthers. Despite a year marred by some underperformance, the Panthers enter the postseason in their best, most confident form seen from the squad since the season began in October. This season’s President’s Trophy winner against last season’s President’s Trophy winner, the Bruins vs Panthers will make for a great series.
Bruins vs Panthers First-Round Preview
The Boston Dynamo
The first storyline in this Bruins vs Panthers series is Boston itself. Attempting to describe Boston’s season with any exact term is futile. Boston won eight straight to finish the season with 65 wins and 135 points, breaking the all-time wins record by three wins and breaking the all-time points record by three points. The Bruins feature an extremely small number of deficiencies across every area of the game; an elite, efficient offence primarily activated through a defensive core of some of the NHL’s top back-end puck movers and transporters. Defensively, Jim Montgomery largely held defensive structures stemming from now Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy in place, with minor modifications made in order to boost Boston’s transition play.
Even with these beneficiary modifications, the degree to which Boston has dominated the league was nearly impossible to predict. The Bruins have equipped themselves for a deep run in the most effective fashion; between the strangling, dynamic two-way play of the Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Jake DeBrusk line, the engine of the Boston offence in Pavel Zacha, David Krejci, and David Pastrnak, the emergence of Hampus Lindholm and four other elite defenders, and the William Jennings winners in Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, the Bruins are a powerhouse consisting of seemingly no glaring issues. David Pastrnak’s electric 61-goal, 113-point season led the Bruins offence in all product categories, ranking second for goals and third in the NHL for points.
Florida’s Tumultuous Season
The root of this playoff appearance for Florida is the polar opposite of that of the Bruins. Coming in with expectations congruent to their President’s Trophy-winning 2022 season that ended in a second-round loss, the Panthers appeared ultimately maimed. For reference, the Panthers had collected just 40 points in their first 41 games of the season, with a record of 18-19-4 on January 9th after a 5-1 loss to Dallas. At that stage of the season, Florida sat six points back of Pittsburgh for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with an extra game played, with 11 fewer wins than last season’s masterclass
However, the Panthers managed to gain significant ground back and rode the back of stars such as Matthew Tkachuk. In the remaining half of the regular season, Florida collected 24 wins and finished the season with 42 wins total, resulting from a late-season surge that was powered by the Hart-level calibre play of Tkachuk, alongside a career-season from Carter Verhaeghe, sustained consistency from Aleksander Barkov, and a surprising 73-point season from defender Brandon Montour. In even more exciting developments, goaltender Alex Lyon enters the postseason as Florida’s unforeseen hero and a horse for the team’s season-saving six-game winning streak in March and April, making a franchise record 56 saves in a 7-2 win against Ottawa in that span. Now, the Panthers enter the postseason at their most confident.
Both the Bruins and the Panthers posted elite offensive results, achieved in quite different fashions with different modes of offensive generation. With a back-end filled with excellent puck movers such as Hampus Lindholm, Charlie McAvoy, Dmitry Orlov, and Matt Grzelcyk, the Bruins retrieve and efficiently generate play up ice at a league-best rate, allowing the Bruins (primarily their second line with David Pastrnak) to attack opposing defences with speed and create instrumental gap advantages to create sustainable offences.
In the offensive zone, the Bruins are incredibly effective at winning and sustaining possession of the puck and attacking through several different angles, such as the seam of the zone, creating plays to and from the middle of the ice, and the use of an active weak-side defenseman stepping into unoccupied space. Despite ranking 10th in the NHL for expected goals for (xGF/60), the Bruins ranked second (just a thousandth of a goal behind the Kraken) in goals for per 60 (GF/60) according to Evolving-Hockey.
Florida sustains their offence both on the rush on through the forecheck, with a mix of players in their top six elite in either mode of generation. In-zone, the Panthers create chances off of point-shot set-ups primarily; for reference, the team’s point-shot set-ups per 60 ranked first in the NHL this season (All Three Zones). A key for Florida will lie in adjusting to Boston’s suffocating in-zone defensive structure; namely, sustaining possession off of rebounds and wearing down the Boston defence.
Unfortunately, some concerns lie in sustainability and consistency. Florida’s depth has struggled to produce and generate numerously this season, while a seemingly large portion of Florida’s offence appears to rely on the play of Matthew Tkachuk, whose on-ice xGF/60 with of 4.13 is a 63 percent increase from Florida’s xGF/60 without him on the ice (Hockey-Viz)
Despite Florida’s inconsistent play at times this season, they are ultimately able to pounce on opponents backed against them. Boston is facing a team better than the 2019 Blue Jackets team that swept the record-tying 2019 Lightning squad; albeit, Boston is most likely a stronger team than that Lightning team was as well. Regardless, this series should prove to be one of the best in the collection of first-round series this postseason.
Our prediction sees a series that will truly test the Bruins, who face a surging, confident, and hungry Florida Panthers squad eager to seemingly conquer the world. Defeating the supposed best team in the history of the NHL would be the shock that bursts Florida into what could be a deep run. Ultimately, however, Boston is so incredibly well-equipped to handle any team they face that Florida is likely to be simply out-muscled. Regardless, gear up for game one for what is poised to be an excellent series, which begins at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time tomorrow night at TD Garden in Boston on ESPN.
Prediction: Bruins in 7
Main Photo: Jason Mowry-USA TODAY Sports