The Florida Panthers entered the 2021-22 NHL season with a hype train running full steam ahead, and they've done nothing to diminish that positivity with a very impressive start to the campaign.
The Panthers improved to 7-0-0 with a 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins in Florida on Wednesday night.
It was the Bruins' first real test of the season and they failed.
“I watched them last year because of the interest, and the Tampa Bay series, and you know they're going to be good. They’ve put pieces in place here,” B's head coach Bruce Cassidy told reporters after the loss. “They’ve got a proven coaching staff. They’ve got a goaltender who’s had a lot of success and won a Vezina with a young kid right behind him. Their pieces are in place, and we’ve got a lot of good pieces in place. We got outplayed a little. It wasn’t like one team dominated. I thought we each had our way in a period.
“In the third, they did what they had to do to put the game away. We did have a push, but I think it just came down to a couple plays at each end where they got a save or they finished, or the opposite for us. That’s what it came down to. It could easily have been the other way.”
The B's are typically one of the best 5-on-5 teams, but the Panthers held a plus-3 edge in shot attempts, a plus-4 lead in shots on net, a plus-3 advantage in scoring chances and, most importantly, a 3-1 scoring differential at 5-on-5 Wednesday night.
The only goal the Bruins scored was essentially an own-goal by the Panthers in the first period. Florida put the score out of reach at 12:40 of the third period when top defenseman Aaron Ekblad found right winger Anthony Duclair with a great pass. Duclair showed off tremendous speed and skill to put the Panthers up 3-1.
Not even the often reliable top line could get much going. Panthers superstar center Aleksander Barkov, the reigning Selke Trophy winner, held the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak trio to below 50 percent of the shot attempts, shots on net and scoring chances when matched up on the ice during 5-on-5 action, per Natural Stat Trick. Brad Marchand and the David Pastrnak were each held without a point for the first time all season.
The Panthers are a deep team with an excellent top-six up front and a well-rounded blue line, headlined by a former No. 1 overall pick in Ekblad. No. 1 goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is a former Vezina Trophy winner and has a .946 save percentage to begin the season.
How does the Panthers' resurgence to a real contender in the East impact the Bruins?
Well, for starters, it's no guarantee the Bruins finish top three in the Atlantic Division. Earning home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs will not be easy. The Panthers, the Toronto Maple Leafs and two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning all are legit teams. When the season started, these three teams, plus the Bruins, all were in the top seven of the 2022 Stanley Cup title odds.
The Atlantic is the best division in the sport and getting through it will be very difficult.
Consider this: For the Bruins to reach just the Eastern Conference Final, they might have to beat the Panthers and Lightning in the first two rounds. That would be a brutal road to the third round. But it easily could be the reality for the Bruins, and it illustrates how well they must play both during the regular season and playoffs if this group is going to make one more run at a Stanley Cup championship.
The Bruins and Panthers play again Saturday night at TD Garden. After that, they don't meet again until April 26 -- the third-to-last game of the regular season. It's an important matchup for the Bruins to show they can compete with and beat one of the top teams in the league.