May 25, 2024

Bruins-Panthers: Questions that will tilt the playoff series

If the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers showed us anything in Game 1 of their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series on Monday — a 5-1 win by the B’s — it’s this:

Expect the unexpected from this one.

The Atlantic Division rivals clashed again amid fraught recent history that will add another stimulating chapter with this postseason matchup. The Bruins fell in infamous fashion to the Panthers last spring, with the Presidents’ Trophy winners blowing a 3-1 first-round series lead to see their playoff run end early in a Game 7 overtime loss.

Then Boston went 4-0-0 in the regular season against Florida, which still won the division with one more point than the Bruins.

The Panthers breezed through their first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games, and had been out of action since April 29. Meanwhile, Boston was battling its demons again, having gone up 3-1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round only to land back in a Game 7 overtime — which it won 2-1, just two days before the second round was set to begin.

That set the stage for a return to South Florida, where the well-rested Panthers awaited a battle-weary Boston brood. But surprise! It was the well-travelled Bruins who came out on top in Game 1 with a blowout victory.

Suffice it to say, the Bruins have everyone’s attention now — most especially the Panthers’. So what will Florida do in response to the rout?

Before the puck drops for Game 2 on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), we’re breaking down five burning questions for the series based on what happened in Game 1.

Can the Panthers rattle Swayman?

There’s not a more unbothered postseason player than Jeremy Swayman.

Case in point: The Bruins netminder was buried under no fewer than six bodies during a goal-line scrum in Game 1, all of them searching frantically for the puck, and Swayman had it under him all along. The cackle he delivered while nonchalantly tossing the disk out from his glove to the bemused displeasure of the surrounding Panthers? Priceless.

And also, a problem.

Toronto learned the hard way how backbreaking it can be getting stymied by Swayman, what with his .950 save percentage and 1.49 goals-against average in the first round. Now the Panthers have seen up close the challenge that beating Swayman will present, as he made an individual playoff-best 38 saves in Game 1 to reach a postseason record of 5-2, with a .955 SV% and 1.42 GAA. He’s also the eighth goaltender in league history to allow two goals or fewer in his first seven starts in a postseason.

Florida didn’t do enough to get in Swayman’s face on Monday. Sure, the Panthers fired 39 shots on net, but they clocked just four quality, high-danger chances through the first two periods and weren’t truly testing Swayman until the third, when he had a three-goal cushion.

Boston kept Florida’s best skaters to the outside or chasing their own tails behind the net. The Panthers weren’t getting bodies in front and just peppered Swayman with shots he could easily track. That strategy didn’t work for the Leafs; it doesn’t project to go any better for Florida.

What could work is making Swayman uncomfortable — if, at this point, that’s even possible. Swayman’s confidence is rightfully sky-high after masking many Bruins blemishes in the first round and then putting on a show in Game 1 against Florida.

It’s up to the Panthers now to adjust how they attack Swayman in Game 2. Part of that falls on Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky — who made 24 saves in Game 1 — improving substantially at the other end to match Swayman’s excellence.

Getting through Swayman will require the Panthers to establish a consistent net-front presence, battle down low for loose pucks and seek out greasy goal opportunities. All of those are clichés for good reason because they work, especially in the postseason, when open ice and rush chances are richer than Swayman’s next contract will be.

Who wins the special teams battles?

If the Panthers and Bruins have anything in common, it’s knowing how to shut down an opponent’s power play — and also how to leverage their own.

Boston silenced Toronto on the man advantage in the first round, when the Leafs were a woeful 1-for-21 with the extra man to the Bruins’ 6-for-17. Florida stifled Tampa Bay there, too, leaving the Lightning at 4-for-20 while it went 3-for-13 (and added a short-handed goal to boot).

Game 1 offered both Florida and Boston opportunities to capitalize on special teams that netted, well, nothing.

The Panthers were 0-for-3 with the extra man. Boston was 0-for-2.

Who’s going to break the stalemate there?

Boston and Florida entered their series with an even number (11) of 5-on-5 playoff goals, although the Bruins had played two more games than the Panthers to get there. Boston held the power-play edge overall, hitting 35.3% to Florida’s 23.1%. Boston also had the better kill, sitting at 95.2% versus 80% for Florida (again, through additional games on Boston’s end).

If Game 1 was a feeling-out process, and the series expectedly tightens up from here — particularly as the Panthers get their legs under them again — then special teams should become a larger factor in success (or failure). Given how both sides have generated scoring at even strength, those openings on the power play start to loom large in determining outcomes.

Will Florida’s depth eventually shine?

Game 1 had star power — but it was the Bruins’ depth stealing the spotlight.

The early 1-1 score came courtesy of goals from two top-line skaters — Matthew Tkachuk for Florida, Morgan Geekie for Boston — and then the sides settled in. Some fringe scorers emerged for the Bruins in Mason Lohrei (with his first of the postseason), Brandon Carlo (notching his second) and Justin Brazeau (also with his first).



Justin Brazeau beats Sergei Bobrovsky for a Bruins goal

Justin Brazeau scores a third-period breakaway goal to put the Bruins up 4-1 vs. the Panthers.

Boston exemplified the importance of having contributors throughout the lineup. It’s on Florida to respond in kind come Game 2 and beyond.

The Panthers are a formidable team up front and proved it in their first-round series against Tampa Bay. Through those five games, Florida earned incredible contributions from Carter Verhaeghe (five goals), Tkachuk (three goals) and Sam Reinhart (three goals), among others.

The Bruins showed in Game 1 how they deny genuine scoring chances and can be difficult to penetrate defensively. In a series like this, top lines can cancel each other out. So who is going to produce from among the Panthers’ bottom six to help them keep pace with what Boston can offer throughout its own lineup?

Granted, the Panthers are missing Sam Bennett, who hasn’t played since suffering an upper-body injury against the Lightning on April 23; he’s considered day-to-day, and coach Paul Maurice estimates he’ll return by Game 4. When Bennett can get back, it will undoubtedly boost the Panthers offensively.

But even still, Florida should expect contributions from the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko and Evan Rodrigues to start punctuating the score sheet if the Bruins manage to hold Verhaeghe, Reinhart and Aleksander Barkov off it more often than not in this series. And if the Panthers could see some goals flying in from the blue line — defensemen have accounted for just three of Florida’s postseason scores thus far — all the better for them.

How will the coaching matchup play out?

It was five minutes into the third period of Game 1. Boston was up 3-1, and Jim Montgomery had to call a timeout.

Florida had sent 11 shots on Swayman in the final frame, and Boston looked lost.

Montgomery saw his group headed for trouble and asked for a breather.

“I could tell our players were hurried, a little frantic with the puck,” Montgomery said. “I just wanted us to relax.”

The Bruins took a pause. Play resumed. And two minutes later, Brazeau found the back of the net to ice Boston’s victory.

“After that timeout, you could tell the momentum shifted,” Swayman said.

“At the right time, he made the right timeout,” Carlo added. “He believes in us a lot.”

Game management is critical in the postseason. And in Game 1 it was Montgomery who seemed to outduel Maurice in that respect. How will Florida’s bench boss counter?

The intricacies and gamesmanship of coaching aren’t always visible on the outside. In Montgomery’s case with the timeout, it was just a perfectly executed example of knowing what your players need to stay on track. And it’s maximizing their potential in every situation to get a victory over the line.

If Montgomery hadn’t slowed the Bruins down, and Florida had broken Swayman with another goal, there was enough time left for the Panthers to come all the way back (and let’s not forget Boston was tied for the league lead in regular-season overtime losses when leading after two periods).

That must have been top of mind for Montgomery in Game 1. And it might have saved Boston from a potential gut punch.

Can Boston maintain momentum?

The Bruins had emotion on their side entering this series, in more ways than one.

While Florida had been cooling its heels since beating the Lightning over a week ago, Boston rolled into Round 2 off that dramatic overtime victory in Game 7. Add to that an extra side of new dad energy from Carlo — who arrived for Game 1 just hours after his second child was born — and the Bruins were feel-good favorites for the night.

The challenge for Boston now is to channel that same energy even after some of the original luster has been lost.

Montgomery was open about how Boston “made a lot of mistakes” in Game 1 that were not catastrophic thanks to Swayman’s stellar performance. Florida was one of the league’s premier teams all season, and there’s little doubt it’ll have a counterpunch ready to deliver in Game 2. The Panthers were the stronger team out of the gate in Game 1, too, and if not for Swayman holding the Bruins in it early, the result might not have gone Boston’s way.

How the Bruins handle what Florida does differently now moves to the forefront. Boston undisputedly set a tone in Game 1 with physicality, confidence and swagger. But if the Bruins don’t clean up some areas, as Montgomery alluded to, then Florida is too strong a team not to take advantage of its opponent’s errors.