At this point, it’s probably fair to ask the million-dollar question of Boston Bruins fans. Or maybe it’s a $1.50 question at this point with the B’s having been done for almost a month while other teams are pushing for the conference finals.
Will Bruins fans feel better about this spring’s playoff failure in the first round against the Florida Panthers if the Panthers end up winning the Stanley Cup? Will it soften the blow of the Boston Bruins pulling all the levels, pushing all the buttons and going all-in if they were thisclose to advancing past the eventual Stanley Cup champion and pushed them as hard they could be pushed.
The bottom line is that the Boston Bruins brutally disappointed and fell way short of expectations after a record-breaking NHL season of 65 wins and 135 points where they built a deep, talented “wagon” of a hockey team, and there will be fallout as a result. But was part of it also running into the exact wrong team at the wrong time of the postseason?
That was essentially part of a phone conversation between Jim Montgomery and Jon Cooper a couple of weeks ago with both NHL head coaches sitting on the outside looking in after falling in the first round. The other part was Montgomery changing things up next season to have his players hold each other accountable in a meeting setting on a more regular basis rather than having things combust in the playoffs.
“Peer meetings where we would set players up in groups and they could communicate to another because the hard truths are the hard truths, and your peers know where you need to be a little bit more prudent in your game or in your off-ice habits, whatever the case may be,” said Montgomery, when asked what kind of tangible change the B’s will make moving forward to better prepare their team for the playoffs. “And I think that kind of inner conflict would, I believe, help our players prepare a little bit better for the hard times ahead because the playoffs are a different animal.
“We’re seeing that even in the second round [of the playoffs]. I talked to Jon Cooper [a couple of weeks ago] He’s like, ‘The first round is the wild, wild West. You just have to get through.’ And we didn’t get through. Those are hard times that fall on us right now because of that. So that inner conflict, I believe, helps you mentally prepare. And that’s one thing I would change.”
But it also feels like that was little consolation to Boston Bruins management, who were counting on a lot more playoff hockey games this spring right along with the Delaware North ownership group.
“Based on the regular season, a lot more [hockey was left on the ice] this year,” said Boston Bruins President Cam Neely. “I can’t sit here and BS anybody, this stung. This stung, this left an empty feeling, not just for us up here, the players, the fans especially. They [the fans] certainly brought it every night in the four games that we played in the first round. So, there was a lot left on the table this year, for sure.”
Still, there is something happening in Florida after Matthew Tkachuk’s dad famously went on Ottawa sports radio and called the Panthers “soft” a couple of months ago.
"They're a soft team and they're getting everything they deserve right now"
— First Up (@FirstUp1050) March 29, 2023
Since then, they have played at a consistently higher and more physical level with a suffocating forecheck that’s forced both the Bruins and now the Maple Leafs into a ton of self-inflicted errors. The Maple Leafs were only to win one game against Florida in their second round series and Auston Matthews never even scored a goal in another bad mark on his Stanley Cup playoff resume.
The Panthers aren’t overwhelming other teams with offense, but Matthew Tkachuk has been a hard-charging star with five goals and 16 points in 12 games while Carter Verhaeghe, Brandon Montour and Sam Reinhart have backed him up production-wise. The other star element has been Sergei Bobrovsky with a .918 save percentage and a 7-2-0 playoff record that includes 50 saves in the overtime 3-2 win that eliminated the Leafs in the second round.
Obviously, the Panthers will need to get by a very solid Carolina Hurricanes crew in the East and they will potentially have to contend with Bruce Cassidy and the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference. That will be a whole different kettle of fish for Boston Bruins if they watch Cassidy and the Golden Knights possibly hoist the Cup at the end of the playoffs, or simply get a chance to do it by being in the Stanley Cup Final in his first year in Vegas.
But the Boston Bruins, to a man, gave the Panthers their just due after the first-round playoff series was over while admitting that their own self-inflicted mistakes helped do them in.
“Coming home 3-1, [we] had lost very few games at TD Garden during the course of the season. Now they know you’ve got to win two of the next three if you do get to a Game 7. So, we weren’t feeling overconfident by any means, but we were feeling confident in going out [and closing the series against Florida]. We still hadn’t played maybe our absolute best or what we had seen consistently in the regular season,” said Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney, looking back at the series. “Game 3 was probably our best, most complete game. The catastrophic mistakes — and then give me reference after Game 2, they were blatantly obvious.
“Give credit, Florida’s forecheck is giving Toronto trouble. It gave us a struggle. They played that way for probably the last two and a half, three months of the season. So, we knew what was coming. And it’s another thing to handle. The moment you go back and look at every player and their situations, they either get the job done or don’t. In some cases, we didn’t. And puck management was an issue, generally mostly an issue for us in the neutral zone. More so the defensive zone because we were a transitional, a really good team. We weren’t going to be reliant on the rush. You know, we felt we could play in a different style. We just failed to execute in some of those key, key moments. And the margins are small. That’s just how playoff hockey goes.”
That’s absolutely how playoff hockey goes, and the Florida Panthers team that ousted the Boston Bruins look like they might have all the ingredients to win the whole thing as a No. 8 seed that was much more talented than your typical wild card playoff team. The question now becomes whether the Panthers possibly winning the Stanley Cup makes what happened to the Boston Bruins any less of a “choke” as some B’s players even referred to the first-round loss after it was all over.