We now have our opponent.
The 2023 playoffs in Boston begins with the Florida Panthers, who limped through the start of the season to roar back into something resembling playoff contention in the last two months, securing a playoff spot the old fashioned way while New York and Pittsburgh fought furiously for the last bottle of glue to eat.
By the Regular Season results: Actual Competition for once!
This was an unusual year for the Bruins and Panthers series, in that the Panthers, despite being quite flawed, usually brought their A-Game to face Boston, causing them no end of trouble.
Or at least, that’s how people remember it.
The reality is that when Florida wasn’t ready for what Boston was bringing, they really weren’t ready. Boston narrowly outscored them 17 to 15, but that’s buoyed by an absolutely catastrophic 7-3 beatdown in December, and the Panthers had to work like crazy to get those wins in an ultimate finish of 2-1-1 on the season.
Of course, that’s just the Regular season from the highlights. Let’s take a look at these games under the hood.
By the Numbers: From a Distance
From a distance, it’s easy to see how a team like the Panthers, even with their struggles, got back into the playoffs ultimately quite comfortably; they lead in a number of shot-metrics that could make them a problem for anybody. According to Evolving-Hockey.com, they are 6th in Fenwick-For%, 4th in Corsi-For%, and 7th in Expected Goals-For%. They take a ton of shots, and they generally get them in the better areas of the ice. But right behind them in nearly every category, is the Boston Bruins, with one notable exception; the B’s lead the Panthers narrowly in xGF%.
One gets the impression that perhaps the Bruins are taking more dangerous shots than the Panthers, and you might be able to get that impression; the B’s absolutely lead the league in High-Danger Goals For, but the trick is simple; While the Panthers absolutely blanket their opponent’s netminder in shots, the Bruins make the act of offense an absolute trial. This allows the offense plenty of time to set up, have long possessions to wear the opponent down, and eventually crack the backcheck open and get a good shot through. Combine that with some high-impact talent like Pastrnak and Taylor Hall? You’ve got a recipe for success.
By the Numbers: Head to Head from the season
While the scores traded back and forth, I think the most important thing you can take from looking at the overall flow of the Bruins facing the Panthers is that when they were on their game, the Panthers did not have an answer for it.
At even strength, the Boston Bruins controlled possession and the lion’s share of quality scoring chances in all but one of those regular season matchups against the Panthers...and the one they didn’t control was the one where they scored 7 goals.
One thing that the Bruins did do in their losses against the Panthers this year, was fade down the stretch, allowing Florida’s high-octane offense (when they cared to use it) to get them into games with strong individual periods to seal the deal. While the playoffs are obviously a different animal altogether, this does bode well for Boston; just keep the pedal to the metal, and there’s more than likely a win against Florida in their future. But they have to keep it going for 60 minutes. Anything less invites Florida back into the game.
Which is not advised.
X-Factor Players for each side:
Given how cagey the team has been about his overall wellbeing, I wouldn’t put it past them to shut Bergeron down for at least one early game. The Bruins have been able to keep up the pace when he’s out for short stretches, and a big part of why is that Pavel Zacha has stepped up in a way that is just exceptional to watch. He’s done everything asked of him and more, creating timely scoring and driving play like a demon when he’s been given these kinds of minutes.
Of course Bergy will probably make his return soon, he’d need a near-death experience to be pulled away from the ice. It would just be nice for him to be able to skate without doing damage to himself, so it will fall to Zacha to take this momentous opportunity and hold the fort for Boston in this early part of the series.
Orlov has played very well since his trade to the Black and Gold, and he’s shot all the way to the top of the defensemen leaderboards in terms of creating offense. Even more than McAvoy and even Lindholm, who’s probably gunning for a Norris. That’s a massive feather in the B’s cap, and with his strong play coming into the playoffs, getting him to become not just a dependable blueliner in his own end, but also a contributor on the Panthers’ side of the ice and early will be vital towards getting the Bruins wins in Game 1 and 2.
And there it is, the big thing that the Bruins have over the Panthers.
Simply put, there is no competition between the two sides as to who has the better goaltending. Bobrovsky coming back doesn’t change that. Alex Lyon having a good 15 games is nice for them but it doesn’t put them over the hump. Either one of Jeremy Swayman or Linus Ullmark blow the entire Panthers goalie corps out of the water. Name a statisical category on which we rank goaltenders; they already clear it before you even thought of it. This is not a race Florida can win, and I’m afraid it may be the thing that sinks the Panthers overall.
I have sometimes referred to the Florida Panthers, away from where it could take off, as a Cocaine Corsi Boat.
It’s captain over the last couple of years, was Jonathan Huberdeau and Sasha Barkov in equal measure.
Nowadays, it is 100% Matthew Tkachuk. This dude is playing like his hair is on fire.
109 points in the regular season, a massive part of their offensive punch, and probably should be a finalist for the Hart.
And that’s all before you get to the fact that he’s just a prick when he’s on the ice. Tkachuk is very much of his family with how brutal it is to deal with him on a game-to-game basis. Shutting him down is a huge step towards shutting the Panthers down.
The Panthers are stereotyped, rightfully so, for not playing a whole lot of defense. So when someone stands out for being good at defense on the Panthers, you should take notice.
Sasha Barkov has been once again a force for Florida, being a dependable two-way player that has been backing up the Selke conversation for about five years now, and has the very fun label of being perpetually the most underrated (read: underreported) player in the league. I am sure this has nothing to do with SportsNet and ESPN’s general refusal to put the Panthers on TV, and will instead move on by saying matching his play early on will be vital towards cracking Florida’s forecheck.
Lyon is, as far as we still know, the goaltender for Game 1. There’s a chance Bobrovsky ends up the starter, but his performance over the last 15 games or so has been enough to nearly win him the job outright. He seems uniquely suited to dealing with Florida’s disinterest in the backcheck, so if he is the chosen netminder for game one, it becomes imperative to solve him and solve him quickly, because letting him gain confidence could make winning this series a lot harder.
If the Panthers have to make a choice between him and Bobrovsky between games, the series will be well in-hand.
Much of this comes down to goaltending.
We’re pretty aware of what the Bruins and the Panthers look like when faced with the postseason, at the very least we can get a good idea of what this team can do. We also know that the Panthers don’t want to be left behind and go as deep as they possibly can. What we don’t know, is how their shaky goaltending will react to the fierce pace of playoff hockey.
So we might as well find out tonight!