As hard as it was to accept their premature playoff fate, as difficult as it was to swallow the shock of a Game 7, Round 1 loss at home, as disappointing as it was to head into the offseason so soon after setting NHL regular-season records for wins and points, somehow things have gotten even worse for the Bruins.
Welcome to Boston’s Stanley Cup nightmare: The team that bounced the Bruins from the playoffs against the coach they fired after last season. Seriously, do you think anyone in black and gold is even watching this travesty?
As the battle for the Cup begins Saturday night, the series is rife with cruel reminders of what might have been in Boston. On the home bench are the Vegas Golden Knights, coached by Bruce Cassidy, the man the Bruins fired after a first-round playoff ouster in 2022. On the opposite bench are the Florida Panthers, the team that sent this year’s Jim Montgomery-coached Bruins packing at the same shocking point in the postseason.
Had the Bruins gotten past the Panthers after leading their series, 3-1, would they have followed a similar path to the Stanley Cup? Had the Bruins stuck with the coach who had taken them to one Stanley Cup Final (in 2019) and to the playoffs in each of his six seasons in Boston, would they be back there with him now?
Of course there is no such direct transitive property at work in sports, and those questions are patently unanswerable. But it’s not hard to wonder what the Bruins are feeling as their road not taken has been navigated so well by others. It has to hurt.
While the Bruins continue to grapple with the hard questions of the offseason — how they lost their identity after winning the Presidents’ Trophy, whether they will have captain Patrice Bergeron back for another year or whether they wasted his potential farewell with the stunning home loss, what Montgomery was thinking with all his line changes, what the heck happened to their once-stellar goaltending, where in the world their five-on-five scoring went — the Panthers and Golden Knights were busy writing their own amazing postseason stories.
Start with Vegas, a veteran team that responded right away to the change in coaching voice. With six players still around from a 2018 Stanley Cup Final appearance, the Golden Knights wasted little time stamping themselves a playoff favorite this season, but unlike the Bruins, were able to deliver on that promise. They’re here despite multiple injuries and changes at goalie, they’re here because of a stout, physical defense, and they’re here because of Cassidy’s steady hand.
As much as the Bruins responded to Montgomery’s somewhat softer touch, much needed after Cassidy’s relationship with some players had become strained and well reflected in the team’s regular-season success, the Vegas players did even better with their new voice. Look at the breakout season of Jack Eichel, the former Boston University Hobey Baker winner, the former No. 2 overall draft pick, the former Buffalo Sabre, who has found new life under Cassidy. In coaching Eichel to become a better two-way player, Cassidy has reached a young player in a way he couldn’t, say, with Jake DeBrusk in Boston.
And now, four wins away from a title, the Golden Knights hope their coach’s experience from 2019 can help them clear the hurdle he couldn’t back then.
“We went seven games, it didn’t go our way, so I learned that getting 16 wins isn’t easy. Fifteen isn’t easy. So that will be a bit of the message,” Cassidy told reporters this past week, after a dominating 6-0 win in Game 6 secured the Final berth.
Not surprisingly, the affable Cassidy reflected on his 2019 run with nothing but positivity.
“They’re both so satisfying, but to compare them I’d have to think back a little bit,” he said. “I had less of a bald spot, I know that for a fact. Two great locker rooms. That’s usually what happens when you get to the final four . . . I’m going to enjoy this one just like I did then, to be honest with you.”
Meanwhile, no one this side of the Heat is having as much fun as the Panthers, giving us two South Florida teams that earned the chance for the NBA/NHL double title Boston thought could be theirs.
What a run for Paul Maurice’s team, which barely squeaked into the playoffs as the last team to get into the field. In the opening series alone, they came back from a 3-1 deficit and won Game 7 on the road, an overtime thriller in which they erased a one-goal lead with less than a minute to go in regulation and then won on Carter Verhaeghe’s OT strike, finishing one of the biggest first-round shockers in NHL history.
From there, Matthew Tkachuk and his pesky Panthers took out Toronto, the NHL’s fourth-best team, in five games, and swept Carolina, owner of the league’s second-best record. With playoff beards and postseason confidence growing at equal rates, the Panthers got on a roll and stayed on it.
Could the Bruins have done the same? Hurts to ask, but it’s not unfair to wonder.