The Panthers Are No Fun For The Bruins
4:50 PM EDT on April 20, 2023
The Bruins were a difficult team to beat once in the regular season, and only two teams did it twice: the Ottawa Senators and the Florida Panthers. The more relevant thing these teams have in common is being in Boston's division; unlike most NHL teams, they got four bites at the apple. But in the Panthers' 6-3 win in Boston on Wednesday night, another shared feature of Ottawa and Florida came to mind: A Tkachuk brother in the lineup. How do you beat the Bruins? Maybe the answer lies in being very annoying.
The Panthers may not be winning like they were last year—no Presidents' Trophy, no 82 straight games without a shutout—but they are, at least, more annoying. They owe that fact to Matthew Tkachuk, the best player in the trade that sent him to Florida from Calgary this summer, and so far the most valuable player in this series. He's led the Panthers' transition from rush-first team to one that generates more scoring chances off the forecheck. They're strong along the boards and behind the net and they're quick to loose pucks. If Florida's opening goal from Sam Bennett represented unusually careless play by the Bruins, it was also something like the ideal Panthers goal. Off a botched clearing attempt, the Cats picked exactly the right time to pounce.
With some help from the biggest cat of all, goaltender Alex Lyon, the Panthers played exactly the way they wanted to, and the Bruins looked boomed and bothered. To their credit, they hung in there even after Eric Staal interrupted the crowd's "Livin' On A Prayer" singalong with a 2-1 goal, scoring on the power play to make it 2-2 just before second intermission. But what followed was probably the worst period of hockey Boston has played all season. The Panthers scored four goals, including one empty-netter. Forget what I said above about that goal being the ideal Panthers goal. This is the ideal Panthers goal, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sequence of pressure on the puck, passing, and positioning. "We're not just going to roll over to the team that had the best regular season in NHL history," Tkachuk told ESPN's Emily Kaplan afterward.
Some of the Bruins' problems this series have been self-inflicted, or at least not inflicted by the Panthers. Before the first game of the series, a virus went around the Bruins locker room. Patrice Bergeron has missed both playoff games with an upper-body injury, one he suffered in the team's regular-season finale against Montreal. The team has survived games without him this season—they have even done so in the playoffs, earlier this week!—but the way they played Wednesday was so un-Bergeron-like it was hard not to feel his absence.
It was amusing at points of this historic Bruins season to remember the mood in Bruinsland when their season ended last year. They had just lost to Carolina in the first round of the playoffs. Bergeron lingered on the ice with the air of someone who would never step back on it. The Bruins had no true second-line center. The prospect pool sucked. The whole team was old, except for David Pastrnak, who was young but also unsigned. Out of nowhere, Bruce Cassidy was fired, a desperate-seeming front-office flail. And then Bergeron re-signed on a one-year deal and all those problems resolved themselves. Those uncertain summer months feel so distant and quaint! This is relevant in either of two ways: Maybe they will look back on Wednesday night's loss and laugh. "Ha ha, remember Brandon Montour's two-goal game? Ha ha ha," Jake DeBrusk will say, caressing the Stanley Cup. "That was crazy, man," a sloshed Pavel Zacha, sitting beside DeBrusk on the parade float, will respond. Or maybe the team is mega cooked without Bergeron, and they do need him back to dig themselves out of this daunting 1-1 hole.
The Panthers continued to get on the Bruins' nerves even when the game was just about over.
It's a testament to what the Bruins have done this season that even Tkachuk couldn't be sure the momentum in this series had shifted. "Starting to sense a little frustration from their side ... maybe," he told Kaplan apprehensively. But the game was a victory for the Panthers and encouraging proof of the hypothesis Florida needs to be true: The Bruins can be pestered to death.