The Bruins know their first-round opponent will be the Hurricanes or Maple Leafs. They know they would start either series on the road.
They also know, based on how they stifle some of the highest-powered offenses in the game, that they can defend well enough to make a playoff run that stretches into late spring.
Boston, rising to the challenge of facing arguably the best offense in hockey, stopped Florida, 4-2, on Tuesday night by playing one of their more complete games of the season. Forcing the rush-happy Panthers to turn to the ol’ dump-and-chase, the Bruins controlled shots, 38-21. They entered the third with a one-goal lead, then allowed three shots in the final 20 minutes — only one of those coming in the final 3:27, when the visitors pulled netminder Sergei Bobrovsky for an extra attacker.
The Panthers (57-17-6) have scored 334 goals this season, more than any team since 1996. In the final week of the regular season, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said before puck drop he was using this game as a measuring stick to see how well his team could check.
“[The Panthers] didn’t look like, to me, they had their usual jump,” Cassidy said after his team (50-25-5) reached the 50-win mark for the first time since 2017-18. “We’ve got to take our share of credit for getting in their way. Maybe it was just one of those nights. But I certainly liked the way our team played. Offensively, we generated a lot.”
Two goals in six seconds in the first period — from Erik Haula and Taylor Hall, both set up by David Pastrnak — and a Jake DeBrusk strike early in the second were the difference.
The power play didn’t score — now on a franchise-record 0-for-36 skid — but Brad Marchand quenched his thirst. Marchand fired home an empty-netter from the blue line seconds after the Panthers pulled Bobrovsky, his first goal after an 11-game drought.
“Empty net or not, he hit the post on one of those the other night,” Cassidy said. “He probably went home thinking, ‘It’s never going to happen.’ But I thought his game was good tonight. Their line was excellent.”
Starting the play was the reborn DeBrusk, who made a host of smart moves on the forecheck. He bothered Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov in the neutral zone before Patrice Bergeron scooped up the turnover, then fed Marchand for the ENG.
The Panthers rushed the puck up the ice often Tuesday, but things petered out once they neared the Bruins’ zone. The pair of Hampus Lindholm (25:28) and Charlie McAvoy (26:17) killed rushes and kick-started the attack.
The Bruins put on display some of their sharpest puck-moving in weeks. In the opening minutes, several backdoor looks nearly went in. Marchand walked in and nearly scored on a three on two, taking a no-look backhand feed from McAvoy.
Still, it was 1-0, Panthers, at the 8:00 mark of the first. Some 19 seconds after a Haula minor expired, defenseman Gustav Forsling sneaked a shot through a Sam Reinhart screen. Linus Ullmark (19 saves) turned around a second after the puck went in the net, seemingly stunned to see it there. But Ullmark made some big stops, none larger than a glove-flashing denial of Reinhart’s wrister from in tight, with less than five minutes left in the first.
Sparked by that save, the Bruins solved Bobrovsky on their eighth shot. On a quick-strike two on one thanks to Hall’s soft-touch entry feed, Pastrnak pulled defenseman Robert Hagg toward him with some fancy stickhandling, then zipped it across the slot to Haula (18th goal).
Make it two goals in six seconds. Off the ensuing faceoff, Florida’s Mackenzie Weegar passed to no one, and Pastrnak shuttled a feed to a streaking Hall. The left winger, who shows a blistering shot when he chooses to deploy it, beat a frozen Bobrovsky over the glove. That left Hall at 19-40–59 for the season, his highest point total since his MVP season in 2018 (39-54–93) and fourth highest of his 12-year career.
“I wasn’t the most confident shooter for a while there,” Hall said. “The last couple games I’ve scored some goal-scorer goals. It’s good to get that feel. It really is a feel … If I can start to get that feel as we’re heading into the playoffs, it’s a good thing.”
With Tuesday’s win, the Bruins will finish no worse than the first wild-card spot, which would put them into a series with the Hurricanes. They could also catch the Lightning for third place in the Atlantic, which would pit them against the Maple Leafs.
The Panthers (57-17-6) may well capture the Presidents’ Trophy this week. They just won’t do it by beating the Bruins.
The Bruins continued to add to their franchise record (since 1977) for power-play ineptitude. They went 0 for 3 and stand 0 for 36 over the last 12 games, stretching over 60:04. They couldn’t crack a weary group of Panthers penalty killers when they had back-to-back minors midway though the third. It is becoming comical, this run. Maybe a few good days of practice before the playoffs will turn things.
“Our power play, we want to get that fixed,” Hall said. “It’s a struggle point for us right now. But when we’re healthy and we have everyone in our lineup, you can see how powerful we can be as a team. Our identity’s always going to be a solid defensive team that can make you pay once we have the puck. I think our game’s pretty good right now.”