The Bruins nabbed their 50th victory of the season and secured the first wild card spot with a solid 4-2 victory over the NHL-leading Florida Panthers at the Garden on Tuesday.
The only thing left to determine is their first-round opponent, which will be the Carolina Panthers if the B’s don’t catch Tampa in the last two games of the season. If they somehow catch the Lightning — three points ahead of the B’s with two games left — the B’s would meet Toronto.
How much Tuesday’s game mattered to the Panthers, still looking to nail down the Presidents’ Trophy but in the Eastern Conference driver’s seat, is anyone’s guess. But they were coming off a spanking at the hands of the Lightning, so you would have thought they’d want to get that taste out of their mouths.
But the B’s had their checking game going, especially in the third period, playing on their toes while protecting a 3-2 lead. Florida came into the game with a plus-38 goal differential in third periods. But not only did they not score, the B’s outshot them 16-3 in the final 20 minutes to salt away the victory.
“Tonight’s game, I’m going to guess they’re going to say it wasn’t their best, because they didn’t seem to have the same jump they typically have for whatever reason,” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “But that’s outside of our control. We control our game, and I think we did what we were supposed to do to be the better team and win the game.”
The win means that the B’s don’t have to play the potent Panthers in the first round. But either Carolina or Toronto — against whom the B’s have amassed an 0-5 record — would be a tough challenge. While it’s expected he’ll rest some regulars in the season finale in Toronto on Friday, Cassidy said that he’ll play his full lineup on Thursday when they host the Sabres.
It would certainly be nice for the B’s to snap their brutal string of futility on the power-play before the playoffs arrive. They were 0-for-3 on Tuesday, including two failed PPs in the third period when it could have made their life a little easier. They are now on an 0-for-36 skid.
“That first power-play of the game, you want to be sharp and I just don’t think we have the confidence right now to be that way,” said Taylor Hall, who had a goal and an assist. “We need maybe a couple of practice days to get that in order. It’s all five of us on that unit that need to help each other out. You’re going to go through that in spurts throughout the season. That’s a real focal point that I’m sure we’ll work on before playoffs start. But if we can get pucks back, retrieve pucks after shots, then our power play’s great. But if we’re one-and-done and they’re clearing it after every shot on goal, it’s really hard to get momentum that way. I think we’ll figure it out. There are too many good players on that unit.”
The B’s did shed one 800-pound gorilla on Tuesday. With the Panthers down a goal and getting nothing going 5-on-5, coach Andrew Brunette got aggressive and pulled goalie Sergei Bobrovsky with almost three and half minutes left. But the B’s easily broke out of the zone and Patrice Bergeron set up Brad Marchand for an empty-netter, snapping an 11-game streak without a goal. He’s still the B’s leading scorer, but it had to be somewhat of a relief.
“Empty net or not. He hit the post on one the other night (against the Rangers) and he probably went home thinking it’s never going to happen,” said Cassidy. “But I thought his game was good tonight and his line was excellent.”
The two teams played an entertaining first period that featured two Bruins’ goals in six seconds and their customary last-minute buzzkill that led to a 2-2 score after 20 minutes.
The Panthers took the first lead of the game at 8:00 when Gustav Forsling beat Linus Ullmark on what appeared to be a screen shot.
But the B’s were playing a pretty good opening period against the league-leading Panthers and they blitzed them with a pair late in the period. First, David Pastrnak fed Haula with a nifty backhand pass off the rush for Haula’s 18th at 16:18.
Then the same line scored off the faceoff. Haula lost the draw, but Hall flicked it away from MacKenzie Weegar and it went right to Pastrnak, who gave it right back to Hall for a breakaway. Hall fired an absolute laser that was in and out of the net before Bobrovsky even flinched. It was Hall’s 19th, and his second breakaway goal in three games.
“It’s nice to score,” said Hall. “I wasn’t the most confident shooter for a while there. But the last couple of games I’ve scored some goalscorer’s goals and it’s good to get that feel. It really is a feel. Some people chalk it up to luck or whatever. But the best goalscorers in the league seem to score a lot. If I can get that feel as we’re getting into the playoffs, that’s a good thing.”
But as is their way, the B’s made a costly last-minute mistake. On a 2-on-2, Brandon Carlo let Anthony Duclair get behind him and had to take a slashing penalty with 10 seconds left in the period. And don’t you know it, that was plenty of time for the Panthers to score. In fact, they left half a second on the clock after Sam Reinhart scored on a rebound off the post to tie the game going into the first intermission.
But the one good thing about giving up so many late period goals – if you can call it that – is the fact that the B’s equilibrium seems to no longer get negatively altered by what were once considered back-breaking goals.
They regained the lead at 4:59 of the second on Jake DeBrusk’s 24th goal of the year. Bergeron and Marchand won a puck in a scrum out high along the right boards and Marchand fired a shot right on net that seemed to stun Bobrovsky. He left a fat rebound for DeBrusk, who buried it for the 3-2 lead.
They still had 35 minutes of hockey to play, but this time they held on to the lead with a grip-like vise and take the season series 2-1 from the Panthers with a feel-good win.