Nick Goss

Cassidy winning Stanley Cup is final gut punch in brutal 2023 playoffs for Bruins

Bruce Cassidy, now a Stanley Cup champion, ended up getting the last laugh.

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The 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs could not have played out any worse for the Boston Bruins.

They were supposed to win it all this spring. A record-breaking regular season that saw the Bruins set NHL records for the most wins (65) and points (135) set expectations as high as they could go. The Bruins entered the playoffs with almost no weaknesses. Everything was set up for them to finish a historic season the right way, and make amends for the bitter heartbreak of 2019.

But the Bruins' playoff run lasted just two weeks. A stunning first-round exit with a Game 7 overtime loss at home to the Florida Panthers ended all hopes of a Duck Boat parade in June.

The pain didn't end there for the Bruins, though.

The Panthers won eight of their next nine games, proving that the road to the Stanley Cup Final through the Eastern Conference might not have been as difficult as we all thought. Had the Bruins advanced past the Panthers, they likely would have beaten the inexperienced Toronto Maple Leafs and the banged up Carolina Hurricanes to reach the Cup Final again.

The final gut punch for the Bruins in the 2023 playoffs came Tuesday night when Bruce Cassidy, the head coach the Bruins fired in June of last year after the team's first-round exit to the Hurricanes, won the Stanley Cup with the Vegas Golden Knights.

"It's very rewarding. I'm in the club now! I'm in the club now and they can't kick you out," a jubilant Cassidy told TNT's Darren Pang amid the Golden Knights' on-ice celebration. "It's a great story. Very, very grateful to get another opportunity. Great group of guys."

It's not just that Cassidy won the Stanley Cup in his very first season away from the Bruins that makes it a tough pill to swallow for Boston. It's that his Golden Knights absolutely dominated a Panthers team that overcame a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs. And it wasn't even close. Vegas outscored Florida 26-12 over five games.

Making matters even worse is the fact that Vegas accomplished this feat by excelling in pretty much every area Boston struggled in versus Florida.

The Bruins couldn't close out a 3-1 series lead at home against the Panthers. They trailed three times in Game 5 before losing in overtime on a huge blunder by goalie Linus Ullmark. The Golden Knights had no such trouble in their Game 5. They jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead en route to an emphatic 9-3 Cup-clinching victory. The Bruins lost three games on home ice to the Panthers. The Golden Knights went 3-0 against the Panthers and 9-3 overall at home in the playoffs.

The Bruins had the No. 1 ranked penalty kill during the regular season at 87.1 percent. Their PK fell to 75 percent in the first round and gave up five power-play goals to the Panthers. Boston's penalty kill was especially bad in the last three games of the series when Florida scored four power-play goals in nine opportunities. The Panthers won all three of those games to eliminate the B's.

The Golden Knights penalty kill pitched a shutout in the Cup Final. This unit allowed zero goals -- a perfect 14-for-14 -- and even scored a shorthanded tally in Game 5. Cassidy's Bruins teams ranked top 10 in penalty killing five times in six seasons, and he brought that structure and discipline to the Golden Knights' PK.

Defense was the foundation of the Bruins' success under Cassidy. His Golden Knights allowed just 2.59 goals per game in the playoffs. The Bruins let up 3.71 per game to the Panthers after leading the league with 2.12 goals against per game in the regular season. The Panthers led for nearly 119 minutes against the Bruins in Round 1. They led for less than 20 minutes against the Golden Knights. Vegas didn't allow Florida to consistently get a lead and establish its aggressive forecheck.

The disappointment of how the 2023 playoffs unfolded for the Bruins is even greater when you factor in what might transpire this offseason. The Bruins must face the consequences of going all-in to win the Stanley Cup. A severe lack of salary cap space will result in plenty of roster changes over the summer. A weak prospect pool and very few quality draft picks could prevent the Bruins from making meaningful roster upgrades through the trade market. We also don't know if Patrice Bergeron and/or David Krejci will return or retire. If both retire, the center position all of a sudden becomes a massive weakness.

The 2022-23 season likely was the Bruins' last chance to win a championship with this group of players, and that's why the first-round exit was so heartbreaking for the fanbase. The window might finally be closed for this core.

The Stanley Cup might still find its way to Massachusetts this summer. Cassidy told reporters after the Golden Knights' Game 5 win that he'll likely spend his day with the Cup on Cape Cod, where his family still owns a home. Golden Knights star Jack Eichel, a native of North Chelmsford, Mass., might take the Cup home as well.

Those days will be another painful reminder of the opportunity the Bruins squandered in what should have been their greatest season in franchise history.

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