How Do You Beat The Bruins?
8:57 AM EDT on April 18, 2023
This headline is not, despite the fact that it only happened 17 times all year, a rhetorical question. Game 1 is a game for feeling out, and for showing one's hand—a first chance for skaters and coaches to take the measure of those on the other side of the rink, and to try to reverse-engineer the other team's gameplan. How do we beat them is no less pertinent than How are they going to try to beat us? Heading into the first-ever playoff meeting between the two most recent Presidents' Trophy winners—a misleading factoid if there ever was one, given that the matchup also features the largest standings points gap in the three-point game era—the biggest question, or at least the one with the potential to be relevant the longest, was not necessarily if the heavy undercat Panthers would shock the world and the historically great Bruins. It was how they thought such a thing might be accomplished, if it could. With 60 minutes in the books, we have something of an answer, and it wasn't enough.
The Bruins won 3-1, a score that belies the fact that the Panthers commanded play for long stretches, controlled possession especially over the first two periods, and outshot and outchanced Boston throughout. They did so by skating hard and working hard, but also by the simplest and riskiest strategy there is: they sold out. They pinched up defensemen at the risk of allowing rushes, and their forwards were aggressive on the backcheck to try to spring something. It worked! Sort of. "We knew they were going to push hard and they did," Brad Marchand said. "When we started turning too many pucks over in the neutral zone and the top of the circles ... we kind of got away from our game."
That strategy manifested as a give-and-take: After a tight first few minutes which saw David Pastrnak open the scoring on the power play, Florida had the puck in the offensive zone for the Panther's share of the first 40, at the cost of allowing way, way too many odd-man rushes the other way. The Panthers (top five in scoring; bottom half in goals against) are accustomed to playing this way, but it is still a devil's bargain, because while there's probably no other way to dictate play against a team as deep and as sound as the Bruins, it means relying heavily on your back end. For the Panthers, that meant their subpar blueline and a 30-year-old career minor-leaguer in net.
Alex Lyon, who started the season on a two-way contract but was forced into the No. 1 role by Sergei Bobrovsky's illness and Spencer Knight's absence, was a rock down the stretch for the Panthers, and at times in this one looked downright Giguèrian.
"The intensity of the playoffs, it surprised us a little bit, and I think we had a little bit of nerves," said Bruins coach Jim Montgomery, but to these eyes it was less playoff intensity and more the specific ultra-aggressiveness of the Panthers, who sold out time and time again to create chances for themselves, knowing full well that the slightest slip would mean a rush for the Bruins the other way. This is a generally an unappealing tradeoff when it relies on your midseason call-up outperforming the heavy Vezina favorite, but necessity makes poison pills more palatable.
Lyon couldn't keep it up forever. Early in the second he allowed a softie to Marchand, the sort of gaffe no team can afford come playoff time, let alone against a team so unlikely to make gaffes of its own.
"He was good," Florida coach Paul Maurice said of Lyon. "He'll want the second one back. I'm not measuring that as the tell of his game, we'll measure it by the saves that he made."
Lyon certainly showed enough to keep the starting job for Game 2 even if Bobrovsky is healthy, but he also showed the razor-thin margins the Panthers are working with. With Linus Ullmark his usual dependable self on the other end, allowing just a point-blank goal to Matthew Tkachuk after a brutal turnover, Florida can't afford to allow bad goals, and, perhaps not any fluky ones either. In the closing minutes of the second in a one-goal game, Jake DeBrusk gave the Bruins some insurance by smacking in a puck that was sitting atop Lyon's pad.
That one was no one's fault; goalmouth scrums are going to happen, and bounces are going to go against you sometimes. The Panthers, given the mismatch, can't survive them. With the two-goal lead, Boston settled down and played safe, focusing on neutralizing the Panthers over trying to score. Florida couldn't get much in the way of good looks in the third; their gameplan relies on exploiting risk, and they are not going to win any battles of attrition here.
The Bruins have to be pleased that they played what was very much not their ideal game and still won by a couple goals; the playoffs are about snatching wins wherever and however you can. "Results matter more than the process right now," Montgomery said. "When we look at our 5-on-5 game, we were not very happy with our process. So we can get better there, but the result was really good."
So what's the takeaway for Florida, then? The Panthers can absolutely hang with the Bruins. And if they can goad them into an end-to-end game of trading haymakers, and if their goalie stands on his head, and if they make fewer mistakes than the best team in hockey, and if the Bruins remain cursed with mud-butt, then maybe they can even beat them. Sounds simple when you put it that way.