At this point in their first-round playoff series against the Florida Panthers, the Boston Bruins have reached a point where they can’t hold anything back.
There may be no tomorrow and a playoff stumble could, and should, have consequences after expectations were elevated so high by a record-breaking regular season.
Every decision needs to be about what gives the reeling Black and Gold the best chance to win based on everything the B’s coaching staff and management group has deduced from the first six games of this series. The Bruins have frittered away a 3-to-1 lead in the best-of-seven series by acting, at turns, like they were trailing in the series rather than that they had control of it after a couple of strong middle games in Florida.
It means learning from a Game 5 situation where you confusingly threw your lines in a blender and tried all new, untested line combinations after mixing and matching all season to make certain players were comfortable together in case they were used in that capacity in the playoffs. The foreign line combos absolutely seemed to contribute to a slow start in that game that ultimately was part of their undoing in an overtime loss at TD Garden where the Bruins dominated the final 40 minutes.
It’s all part of a storyline, however, where the Bruins have yet to play a full, 60-minute playoff effort on home ice where mistakes and uncharacteristic play have been the norm. That needs to change on Sunday night in Game 7.
“I woke up this morning and the first thing that came to my mind is, ‘Wow, I get a chance to coach a Game 7 at home. What a great opportunity,'” said Boston Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery, who at times has made decisions that flat out haven’t worked for the first real stretch this season. “Opportunity, that’s the word that comes to my mind. You’re playing in a Game 7 at home. We had the regular season that we had – that’s over and done with – but it got us this Game 7 to play in front of our great fans. It’s an opportunity to go and seize the moment.”
It means righting a wrong from Game 6 when Matt Grzelcyk was scratched in favor of Connor Clifton, and Clifton almost single-handedly buried the Bruins with a brutal minus-3 performance that was short on confidence, smarts or any kind of composure in a big-time postseason spot. Clifton probably won’t, and shouldn’t, see much time in the playoff short term unless an injury on the back-end forces him back into play.
Connor Clifton gives it right up and the Panthers capitalize on the Bruins' mistakes. pic.twitter.com/IVDiYCVmPB
— Patrick Donnelly (@PatDonn12) April 29, 2023
Most notably, it should also mean reading things correctly and starting Jeremy Swayman in Sunday night’s Game 7 even if he hasn’t logged any playoff playing time aside from a couple of minutes at the end of Game 4 in Florida. Linus Ullmark has alternately looked tired, rattled and potentially injured as the first-round playoff series has worn on after a 41-save win in Game 4 where he infamously scuffled with Matthew Tkachuk at the end of the game.
Linus Ullmark was ready to drop the gloves against Matthew Tkachuk: pic.twitter.com/JcPfGSRV1o
— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) April 23, 2023
Since then, he’s looked overactive in the net where he’s taken himself out of position and allowed some funny goals when he’s usually poised and economical in net, and he’s given up a ton of rebounds when Ullmark was usually so good at killing plays all season and getting whistles when his team needed them most during this magical 2022-23 regular season.
Now the Vezina Trophy favorite is 3-3 with a 3.34 goals against average and an .896 save percentage in the series, and it looks like the Bruins are just now discovering that he can’t handle the full every-other-night playoff workload after setting his career-high with 49 games played this season.
Quite simply Ullmark has never proven he can handle a heavy No. 1 goalie workload at the NHL level, so it probably shouldn’t have been expected of him in a Stanley Cup run the Bruins were hoping was going to last for the next two months.
Hindsight is always 20/20, obviously, but it feels like the Bruins missed a great chance to insert Swayman into the series in Game 5 when the B’s still held a commanding 3-to-1 lead in the series. It would have allowed Swayman to stay sharp after sitting for most of the last two weeks and, if they lost as they did with Ullmark, they would have had a rested and refreshed Ullmark for the final two games of the series if he was needed.
Instead Ullmark looks like fatigue has crept into his game and perhaps the pressure of the Stanley Cup playoffs is getting to him a little bit as well.
All of the moves combined have felt like Boston Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery was operating as if the Bruins were behind in the series rather than on the cusp of eliminating the Panthers. That’s the sign of a head coach that might have been a little rattled, shaken and rolled after sailing through calm seas over the course of the record 135-point regular season for his group.
To his credit, Montgomery says he has “no regrets” about any of the decisions that he’s made even as several have backfired over the first six games of this series.
“Nothing good happens if you live with regret,” said Montgomery, while speaking at Hanscom Air Field after landing on a flight back from Florida on Saturday morning. “If you make a mistake, you admit it and you move on. That’s how you move on from regret. But I don’t regret the decisions that we’ve made as a staff or that I’ve made personally for lineup decisions and who’s been in nets.”
Regardless, the Boston Bruins need to be bold in Game 7.
They need to go with the line combinations and defense pairings that have worked best in this series, they need to find their playoff second wind and they need to be bold enough to admit a mistake with the goaltending and insert Swayman in as their only hope with Ullmark looking a little cooked right now.
Some have said it’s already too late to make adjustments like putting Swayman in for the first time in the series in what would be his biggest career start to date, but the only time it’s too late is when the playoff series is finished and the Boston Bruins have possibly choked their dream season away.
Patrice Bergeron has played his share of Game 7’s both good and bad, and that experience has taught him to stick with the basics in the big moments.
“You’ve got to welcome pressure,” said Bergeron. “That’s why we play the game. It’s for those moments. I don’t think that should be an issue. You have to use that to your advantage and go out there and just play.
“Stay in the moment. Going back to our structure. We’ve talked about the process all year. All those things are things we need to focus on right now and really put emphasis on. To me, it’s play with structure and layers, we’re a tough team to play against.”
Bergeron hopes that will be the case for the B’s, but admittedly it’s been a while since the Boston Bruins have come out on the winning side in a playoff Game 7. They’ll need to dig down deep for their very best to make that happen and keep this postseason run going with a hockey club that had much, much higher aspirations than the massive first round problems they currently face from a Panthers group that’s clearly better than your typical eighth seed wild card team.