A real Stanley Cup contender? Bruins make statement with win vs. Panthers


BOSTON -- Excitement for the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs is ramping up, and Tuesday night's atmosphere at TD Garden served as compelling evidence.

Whether it was Todd Angilly's fired-up rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, the raucous energy level of the Boston crowd or the six goals and physical play between the B's and first-place Florida Panthers, you could easily tell that the postseason is right around the corner.

And the Bruins very much look like a team ready for the playoffs. After beating the Panthers 4-2, the B's have now won five of their last six games with two more remaining in the regular season.

Florida entered Tuesday's matchup with 16 wins in its last 18 matchups and a league-leading 120 points. The Panthers recently broke the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning's league record for most goals scored in a single season with 319. They are an offensive juggernaut. 

But the Bruins frustrated the Panthers throughout the evening, rarely giving them a good look at the net, especially after the first period. The Bruins outscored the Panthers 2-0 and outshot them 19-8 at 5-on-5 over the final 40 minutes. B's goalie Linus Ullmark only had to make 19 saves overall.

"I thought it was a good test for the group," Bruins center Erik Haula said. "Florida is a high-powered offensive team. Keeping them to two goals is good. We'll just keep growing our confidence. We're getting close to the end. It's starting to become more clear as the days (go by) of who we will play (in Round 1). I think today was perfect."

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Boston was protecting a one-goal lead most of the third period and held the league's top offensive team to just two shots on goal. Panthers left winger Jonathan Huberdeau ranks second in the league in scoring with 115 points, but he was a non-factor versus the Bruins with only one shot on net and zero points. Patrice Bergeron and his line did an excellent job slowing down Huberdeau.

Head coach Bruce Cassidy's game plan was solid, and the team executed it at a high level.

"We just kept pressuring them," Haula said. "We had guys above them. The D did a good job holding the blue line and making them dump pucks in. That's probably not their first option or what they want to do, so I think we stuck to our game plan and did a good job with it."

Tuesday's performance illustrates just how good the Bruins are capable of playing against the elite teams, and why they can't be excluded when debating the top Stanley Cup contenders with the 2022 playoffs set to begin next Monday.

Any squad that defends as well as the Bruins has a chance to make a deep playoff run, and Boston leads the league in several key defensive metrics during 5-on-5 action.

Over the last two weeks, the Bruins have beaten the highest-scoring team in the league (Panthers), the third-highest scoring team in the league (Blues), the 11th-highest scoring-team in the league (Penguins) and the team with the fourth-best power play (Rangers). Boston also has beaten the Lightning twice since March 24 and gave up a combined three goals in those games.

The Bruins likely will face several of the league's top-scoring teams in the playoffs if they're going to reach the Cup Final. For example, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes are the most likely Round 1 opponents for the Bruins, and they rank second and ninth, respectively, in goals scored per game.

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Luckily for the Bruins, they are well-equipped to beat these teams with a fantastic defensive structure, an elite shut-down pairing in Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm, and a goalie in Ullmark playing at a Vezina-level since mid-March.

"We've done a really good job (against these high-scoring teams). That's the identity I talk about," Bruins forward Taylor Hall said. "As we go into the playoffs, whoever we play -- Carolina is really good offensively, they generate a lot of chances with speed and forechecking. Florida is more of a rush team. New York is good in the zone and moves pucks quickly. Whoever it is, we'll have to be good defensively, and that's our identity.

"It's not something we have to change or do anything different. We just have to play that structure well. It's fun shutting down other teams, especially our line. We're an offensive line, but when we're good in our end, the sky is the limit. I feel like our whole team buys into that."

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