5 initial thoughts on Bruins-Panthers first-round series


Bruins beat Habs, draw Panthers in first round

The regular season is over. The Bruins finished it with a 5-4 win over the Montreal Canadiens Thursday night, improving to a record-setting 65-12-5.

And now the Bruins finally know their first-round opponent: the Florida Panthers, whose 6-4 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday locked them into the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Games 1 and 2 will be Monday and Wednesday at TD Garden. The rest of the series schedule will be announced later.

Here are five initial thoughts on Bruins vs. Panthers:

1. Florida was one of the hottest teams down the stretch

The Panthers, last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners, sat in 12th place in the Eastern Conference on trade deadline day, and there was some speculation that they might sell off some pieces. They didn’t, and their players responded positively to the decision to not blow things up.

From March 3 on, the Panthers had the eighth-best record in the NHL, going 12-5-2 down the stretch and jumping the Red Wings, Senators, Sabres and, lastly, the Penguins to get into the playoffs. They slipped up with a four-game losing streak from March 21-27, but then reeled off six straight wins as the calendar flipped to April.

Of course, the Bruins had the second-best record post-deadline, going 17-4-0 (Edmonton was 17-2-1). All four meetings between the Bruins and Panthers this season took place before the trade deadline, with Boston going 2-1-1. The Bruins won 5-3 on Oct. 17, lost 5-2 on Nov. 23, won 7-3 on Dec. 19, and lost 4-3 in overtime on Jan. 28.

2. The Panthers have an explosive offense

If you’re wondering what the Panthers do best, it’s this: Score goals. They rank sixth in the NHL in scoring for the season (3.51 goals per game) and are third since the start of February (3.70). They’re third in 5-on-5 offense for the year (3.01 goals per 60 minutes), first since Feb. 1 (3.25).

Matthew Tkachuk is tied for fifth in the NHL in points with 109 (40 goals, 69 assists). Aleksander Barkov is averaging over a point per game with 78 in 68 games. Brandon Montour is tied for fifth among defensemen with 73 points. Carter Verhaeghe has 42 goals. Sam Reinhart has 31.

Of course, the Bruins’ offense is every bit as lethal. They’re second in both total offense (3.67 goals per game) and 5-on-5 offense (3.10 goals per 60) for the season. They also have an offensive megastar in David Pastrnak (61 goals, 113 points). They see the Panthers’ eight 40-point scorers and raise them nine of their own.

The Bruins’ league-best defense and goaltending will be aiming to slow the high-flying Panthers down, but even if some of these games do turn into shootouts, Boston has plenty of offensive firepower to keep up.

3. The Panthers might have a goalie controversy

Sergei Bobrovsky is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner who’s making $10 million a year. Alex Lyon is a 30-year-old career AHLer. There probably shouldn’t be a goalie controversy here.

And yet, it’s Lyon who started the Panthers’ final eight games as they made their playoff push, going 6-0-1 with a .952 save percentage over a seven-game stretch before getting tagged for four goals Thursday night. Bobrovsky was battling an illness for part of that run, but didn’t get his crease back even once he was healthy. He had been basically a league-average goalie this season (.901 save percentage) and had just given up 13 goals in three straight losses before taking a seat.

So… is Lyon now the starter for the playoffs? Or will the Panthers feel like they have to go back to Bobrovsky? It will be interesting to see what coach Paul Maurice decides to do, and also what it might take to make a change during the series if his starter struggles.

4. The Bruins are a lot better defensively

The Bruins’ and Panthers’ offenses might be comparable. The defenses are not.

The Bruins are first in goals allowed (2.12 per game); the Panthers are 21st (3.32). The Bruins are first in 5-on-5 defense (1.78 goals allowed per 60); the Panthers are 16th (2.51). The Bruins are first on the penalty kill (87.3%); the Panthers are 23rd (76.0%). The Bruins are eighth in shots against (29.8 per game); the Panthers are 22nd (31.7). The Bruins are second in expected goals against (2.77 per 60); the Panthers are 23rd (3.27).

You can see how the Bruins, with their team defense and league-best goaltending, can slow down the Florida offense. It’s much harder to envision the Panthers slowing down Boston’s offense.

That’s not to say the Panthers don’t have any good defensive players. Barkov is still one of the best two-way centers in the game. Aaron Ekblad is healthy and very good, even if he had a bit of a down year. Radko Gudas is one of the most physical players in the league, and a stout defender to boot. But their team defense overall leaves plenty to be desired.

5. Who plays for the Bruins will be fascinating to watch

Jim Montgomery has been adamant that both Linus Ullmark and David Krejci -- neither of whom traveled to Montreal for Thursday’s regular-season finale -- will be just fine for Game 1. The Bruins say Patrice Bergeron’s exit from Thursday’s game was just precautionary. We’ll take them all at their word unless we see or hear otherwise in the next few days.

Meanwhile, Nick Foligno and Derek Forbort both practiced in regular jerseys this week and appear to be very real candidates to return from their lower-body injuries at some point during the first round, possibly even in time for Game 1.

If those two aren’t back yet, the Bruins’ lineup seems relatively straightforward, and very good. It probably looks like this:

Brad Marchand - Patrice Bergeron - Jake DeBrusk
Pavel Zacha - David Krejci - David Pastrnak
Taylor Hall - Charlie Coyle - Tyler Bertuzzi
Trent Frederic - Tomas Nosek - Garnet Hathaway

Matt Grzelcyk - Charlie McAvoy
Hampus Lindholm - Brandon Carlo
Dmitry Orlov - Connor Clifton

You could easily flip Grzelcyk and Orlov, as Montgomery has at times recently, but the thought of having one of McAvoy, Lindholm or Orlov on the ice at all times is pretty mouth-watering.

If Foligno is ready to return, does he go right back in on that fourth line? And if so, who comes out? None of Frederic, Nosek or Hathaway deserve to sit. But Foligno was also playing really well before getting hurt in late February, and his added value as a team leader and voice on the bench shouldn’t be ignored.

A similar discussion surfaces on defense if and when Forbort is ready to return. None of the six names above deserve to sit. McAvoy, Lindholm, Orlov and Carlo are locks to play as long as they’re healthy. Sitting Clifton would mean one of the left shots plays his off side, which isn’t really ideal.

There was a time when many assumed Grzelcyk would sit, but he might still be a better fit with McAvoy at 5-on-5 than even Orlov. The Bruins have outscored opponents 36-15 in 604 minutes with Grzelcyk and McAvoy on the ice, but they’ve actually been outscored 7-4 in 130 minutes with Orlov and McAvoy together (even though many of the advanced stats for Orlov-McAvoy are still very good). Grzelcyk is plus-40 at 5-on-5 this season, tied with Lindholm for the best mark in the NHL.

Forbort has been the weakest of the Bruins’ top seven defensemen at 5-on-5 this season. The argument for playing him over Grzelcyk or someone else was his penalty-killing prowess, but the Bruins just killed off 39 straight penalties without him before finally having the streak snapped on Tuesday.

Last but certainly not least, there’s the goalie conversation. Montgomery has repeatedly said he anticipates starting Ullmark in Game 1 -- understandably so -- but he hasn’t committed to anything beyond that. He has said he’s not totally opposed to keeping the strict rotation they’ve used most of the season, but that he doesn’t expect to actually do that.

Swayman has been every bit as good as Ullmark since December, so the Bruins shouldn’t have any hesitation in turning to him if Ullmark struggles or shows any signs of fatigue. This “muscle tightness” that Ullmark left Tuesday’s game with only adds another layer.

So, expect Ullmark to start. But it might not take much for Swayman to get a game at some point, and the Bruins might work him in anyways if they go up a couple games.

Prediction: Bruins in four. Congrats to the Panthers for finishing strong and getting in. Their offense is no joke. But the Bruins are still a much better and deeper team, especially when it comes to defense and goaltending.

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