BOSTON -- Just a few weeks ago, the Boston Bruins had wrapped up the greatest regular season in NHL history. Most wins ever. Most points ever. The deepest and most talented roster. The best goaltending duo. Home ice advantage throughout the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Everything was set up for a successful postseason run.
Fast forward to Sunday night and the once promising campaign is already over after a stunning Game 7 loss in overtime to the Florida Panthers at TD Garden.
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That's it. Out in the first round.
What started as an opportunity to be one of the best teams in league history (if not the best) will ultimately be remembered as one of the biggest choke jobs ever. It's a defeat that will haunt the franchise forever.
"Right now, it’s hard to process anything," an emotional Patrice Bergeron said after the season-ending defeat. "Obviously, we’re shocked and disappointed."
It's not just the fact the Bruins lost the series despite being massive favorites that stands out, it's the way in which it happened.
This team looked scared throughout the seven games. Whether it was the pressure of high expectations after a Presidents' Trophy-winning regular season, the Panthers' relentless forecheck or something else, the poise and composure we saw from Boston all year was consistently absent. Nowhere was that more apparent than their uncharacteristically bad puck management. The Bruins committed so many turnovers, and their eight goals allowed within five seconds of a 5-on-5 giveaway were twice as many as any other team in Round 1.
Did an easy regular season, and the lack of challenging times faced as a result, contribute to the team's inability to handle adversity in the playoffs?
"I don’t think so, not with this group," Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery said. "I mean, there’s a lot of guys that have faced adversity. I do think our first two games we played, we weren't ready for the intensity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and I think that goes with the regular season but, Games 5, 6 and 7, we had dug in and that’s where it’s a little stupefying."
Let's not forget that just four days ago the Bruins had a 3-1 series lead. They needed only one win over the final three games to eliminate the Panthers, and two of those chances were at home, where the B's had a league-leading 34-4-3 record during the regular season.
Bruins forward Brad Marchand had a breakaway in the final seconds of regulation in Game 5 with a chance to end the series and he didn't score. In overtime of that game, goaltender Linus Ullmark gave away the puck in brutal fashion and the Panthers scored the winning goal. In Game 6, the Bruins led 4-3 and 5-4 in the third period and wound up losing 7-5. They erased a 2-0 deficit in Game 7 and took a 3-2 lead in the third period. They had that advantage all the way to the final minute when Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour scored with 59 seconds remaining to force OT.
The extra period was perhaps the worst 8:35 stretch of the entire Bruins season. The Panthers absolutely dominated the action, and they were rewarded on Carter Verhaeghe's series-clinching goal.
Another harsh reality from this defeat is the fact that the roster could look very different next season.
The team's top two centers, Bergeron and David Krejci, are both 37 years old and will be free agents in July. One or both of them could retire, and that would leave the Bruins weak at an important position. There are 11 players on the playoff roster eligible for unrestricted or restricted free agency this summer, including Bergeron and Krejci, as well as Dmitry Orlov, Tyler Bertuzzi and Jeremy Swayman, among others. The salary cap is projected to rise by just $1 million for the 2023-24 season, and the Bruins will use up $4.5 million of next year's salary cap to pay for bonus overages from Bergeron and Krejci's 2022-23 contracts. David Pastrnak's cap hit will rise from $6.67 million to $11.25 million when his extension begins in the fall.
Bringing back the exact same roster is pretty much impossible. Some good players likely will not return, thus hurting the team's depth.
And let's remember the Bruins pretty much went all-in at the trade deadline to acquire Orlov, Bertuzzi and Garnet Hathaway. They don't have a first-round draft pick until 2025. They also didn't have one in 2022, 2020 or 2018. They don't have any second-round picks until 2026. Boston's prospect pool ranks among the worst in the league. Help is not on the horizon.
The Bruins have had a good run over the last 16 years beginning with the 2008 playoffs, which was their first postseason appearance since the 2004-05 lockout. But over that stretch, the franchise has reached the playoffs 14 times and only advanced past the second round on three occasions. They went to three Stanley Cup Final series and won just a single championship.
Considering all of the great players and great coaches who have been part of this organization during that span, to have only one Stanley Cup from this run is pretty underwhelming. And that's one of the main reasons why this loss to the Panthers is so painful. This season was the opportunity to win another Stanley Cup with the veteran core of Bergeron, Marchand and Krejci.
The Bruins have suffered historically bad defeats before. They blew a 3-0 series lead and lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7 of the second round in 2010. It was one of four times in league history that a team lost a series after winning the first three games. But the pain of that meltdown was short-lived because the Bruins won the Stanley Cup -- and defeated the Flyers on the way -- the very next season.
Unless the Bruins lift the Stanley Cup in 2024 or sometime in the near future, the heartbreak from this year's defeat is going to be excruciating forever.
"This is a tough one," Marchand said. "We obviously expected much different results this year and this series, and unfortunately that didn’t happen. This one is going to hurt for a long time."