The time has come for the Boston Bruins to build on their historic regular season and win the franchise's second Stanley Cup title this century.
For a while now, Bruins fans have been eagerly awaiting the start of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Bruins have been the best team all season, setting league records for the most wins (65) and most points (135). They have a deep, super-talented and well-coached roster with few weaknesses. They also have home ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
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But that doesn't mean there are no question marks or concerns surrounding this group. Every one of the 16 playoff teams has a few potential issues that could arise, and the B's are no different.
Here are five important questions for the Bruins ahead of their first-round playoff series against the Panthers.
Will Linus Ullmark's historic regular season translate to playoffs?
For many months, fans and media in other cities across the league were wondering whether Ullmark's strong start to the season was just a hot streak. They'd ask: "There's no way he's actually this good, right?" Well, as the season went along it quickly became clear that Ullmark was not just on a hot streak -- he was in the middle of one of the best goaltending seasons of this era.
He won the goaltending triple crown by leading the league in wins, save percentage and goals against average. He dominated the statistical leaderboards and is the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy.
There's no reason to believe Ullmark will suddenly perform well below the level he's shown all season, unless of course some kind of injury becomes a factor. And, frankly, he doesn't even have to play at the same pace for the Bruins to win the Stanley Cup.
Since the start of the 2013-14 campaign, only two Cup-winning goalies -- Matt Murray in 2016-17 and Andre Vasilevskiy in 2020-21 -- had a playoff save percentage of .930 or better. Last year, Darcy Kuemper posted a below average .902 save percentage in 16 appearances for the champion Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche were a high-scoring team with good special teams, much like the Bruins this season.
There will be games throughout Boston's playoff run where the team is struggling and Ullmark will need to stand on his head. And the B's should have plenty of confidence he can rise to that kind of challenge. He has done it all season, and perhaps the best example was his 54-save win over the Calgary Flames on Feb. 28.
It's true that Ullmark doesn't have much playoff experience. His two-game stretch at the beginning of Round 1 last season was his only taste. He's never faced the high-pressure atmosphere of an elimination game or the Stanley Cup Final stage. But you know what? Just two No. 1 goaltenders in the 2023 playoffs have started a Stanley Cup Final game, and they are Vasilevskiy and Marc-Andre Fleury. There are also two backup/third-string goalies on 2023 playoff teams who have started a Cup Final game -- Martin Jones and Jonathan Quick.
There's no guarantee Ullmark's historically strong regular season performance will carry over into the playoffs, but based on how he's handled everything this year, the Bruins and their fans should be quite confident that he'll rise to the moment.
How long will Ullmark's leash be if he struggles?
The Bruins gave Ullmark just two games in last season's first-round series before putting backup Jeremy Swayman in net. He didn't play well in those matchups, but neither did the team in front of him. It also was Ullmark's playoff debut, and he wasn't coming off a historic Vezina Trophy-caliber season. Bruce Cassidy was the head coach at the time, not Jim Montgomery.
So the situation is quite different entering Monday's playoff opener.
Ullmark being the Game 1 starter shouldn't be a debate. He's earned it after his incredible regular season. Ullmark should remain the starter unless his performance declines in a substantial manner or he is battling an injury that's negatively impacting him in a major way. Even if the Bruins find themselves trailing 2-1, 3-1, 3-2, etc., the only reason to remove Ullmark from the net is if he's playing poorly.
Goalie platoons aren't common for Stanley Cup champions. In fact, 18 of the 23 champions in this century had a goalie who earned all 16 of his team's postseason victories. A couple of the goalies who didn't earn all 16 wins missed a game(s) due to injury but returned to the lineup and played in the Cup Final.
Benching your No. 1 goalie in the playoffs is a major decision, one that can ruin his confidence for the rest of the postseason. Therefore, it's a decision that should only be made out of necessity. Ullmark's leash should be very long.
Will Brad Marchand find his scoring groove again?
Marchand's streak of six consecutive seasons scoring at or above a point-per-game rate ended in 2022-23, mostly because he struggled to find the back of the net over the last few weeks.
The first-line left wing scored only one goal in his last 18 regular season games. He did finish the final week strong, though, tallying four points in the last two games, including a goal against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday that snapped a lengthy drought.
The Bruins have more scoring depth than any other team in the league. Unlike previous years, they haven't had to rely too much on the top two lines to shoulder most of the scoring burden. They can withstand a Marchand slump and still score enough goals against a mediocre defensive team like the Panthers. But for the Bruins to win four rounds and lift the Stanley Cup, they will need Marchand to make an impact offensively. The B's are a much more dangerous team when he is aggressive in the attacking zone and looking to score.
Marchand has been one of the most reliable postseason performers for the Bruins throughout his career. He has posted 75 points (32 goals, 43 assists) in his last 65 playoff games. If that's the Marchand who shows up over the next two months, the Bruins will be extremely tough to beat.
What does the Game 1 lineup look like? Who sits?
The Bruins have extraordinary depth, which is a great problem to have. But it also creates some pretty difficult lineup decisions for Montgomery and his staff when Boston has a full roster (or close to it).
Nick Foligno missed the final 22 regular season games with a lower body injury. If he is ready to come back, who sits? Does Montgomery take out Trent Frederic? He certainly doesn't deserve to come out after setting career highs in goals (17), assists (14) and points (31). Garnet Hathaway has made a strong bottom-six impact, too, providing depth scoring and physical play since arriving from the Washington Capitals before the trade deadline. Tomas Nosek's spot in the lineup is secure because he's great on faceoffs and an excellent penalty killer, among other reasons.
Frederic probably would be the odd man out if Foligno is ready to come back and Montgomery wants to put him in the lineup. It's easier to trust veterans in the playoffs, and Foligno has 62 games of postseason experience compared to Frederic's four. If Foligno struggles or re-aggravates his injury, Boston could turn to Frederic, Jakub Lauko or A.J. Greer in the fourth-line left wing spot.
On the blue line, it'll be interesting to see who sits if Derek Forbort is able to return in Round 1. Forbort hasn't played since suffering a lower body injury during a March 16 win over the Winnipeg Jets, but he's been practicing this week. Forbort is an excellent penalty killer, although the Bruins went an impressive 56-of-60 on the PK during his absence. The left side of the third pairing is probably between Forbort and Matt Grzelcyk. The Panthers are a fast, smooth skating and highly skilled team. Grzelcyk's skill set is a better fit for that kind of matchup than Forbort, so it wouldn't be shocking to see the former Boston University star in the lineup Monday.
Can they slow down Matthew Tkachuk?
The Panthers had 12 players score 10 or more goals in the regular season, so they aren't just a one man team by any means. But there's no question that Tkachuk sets the tone for this team with his physicality and offensive dominance.
He led the team in assists (69), points (109) and shots (322), while finishing second in goals (40).
The Panthers wouldn't be in this position if Tkachuk didn't close out the regular season in dominant fashion. They secured a wild card playoff berth by posting a 6-1-1 record in their last eight games, and Tkachuk tallied 12 points (five goals, seven assists) during that span. He also had five points (one goal, four assists) in the four regular season matchups between the Bruins and Panthers.
"He’s their Brad Marchand,” Montgomery told reporters Saturday when asked about Tkachuk. "He’s their emotional leader. He’s a tremendous competitor with a high, high hockey IQ. He’s not someone you’re going to deter. You’ve just got to defend him well and make sure you're aware of him when he’s on the ice."
Tkachuk's game-winning goal against the Sabres on April 4 was a good example of how he impacts the game. He throws a hard hit to force a turnover, goes to the net and gets his stick on the puck to deflect it past the goalie.
Tkachuk's game is built for the playoffs. He's a true power forward who isn't afraid to mix it up with opponents and go to the dirty areas of the ice to win puck battles and score goals. He's not only a super-talented goal scorer with a great shot, he also consistently sets up teammates with quality scoring chances with elite vision and passing skills.
Neutralizing Tkachuk would go a long way in helping the Bruins make this a short series.