The Florida Panthers are no joke.
Their stunning first-round upset over the record-breaking, Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs was not a fluke.
Since falling behind 3-1 in their first-round matchup versus the Bruins, the Panthers have won 11 of their last 12 games, the last of which was an Eastern Conference title-clinching victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday night. The 4-3 win at FLA Live Arena completed a sweep of the 'Canes and punched the Panthers' ticket to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996.
Does the Panthers' improbable run to the Cup Final make the Bruins' loss less painful? Should it be viewed as less of an upset, especially if Florida finishes the job and wins its first championship?
No. Not at all.
In fact, this run by the Panthers makes Boston's historic Round 1 exit even more difficult to bear.
One thing the Panthers have shown is the path to the Stanley Cup Final through the East was not as difficult as we thought a month or so ago.
Let's not take too much away from the Panthers. They have played fantastic through three rounds. But before the playoffs the East was supposed to be an absolute slugfest with elite teams battling in six- or seven-game series, and that scenario never unfolded. Remember, five of the seven teams with the best Cup odds pre-playoffs were in the East.
The Bruins had so many chances to eliminate the Panthers. Brad Marchand had a breakaway in the final seconds of Game 5. The B's could have won in overtime of that game but Linus Ullmark's turnover cost them. The B's had multiple third-period leads in Game 6 and lost 7-5. They led with a minute remaining in regulation of Game 7 at home before losing in OT again.
If the Bruins win any of those games, it's not hard to imagine them preparing for the Stanley Cup Final right now.
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The Toronto Maple Leafs once again proved to be unreliable when it matters most. The Leafs' top players -- Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and John Tavares -- consistently failed to show up in clutch situations against the Panthers. Florida ran through Toronto in five games in the second round. There's no reason why the Bruins couldn't have done something similar against a Leafs squad Boston has owned for the last decade.
The Carolina Hurricanes were pretty beaten up by the time they got to the Eastern Conference Final. They were without three of their best forwards -- Max Pacioretty, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen -- due to injury. The Hurricanes' depth up front was depleted and they scored just six goals in four conference finals games against the Panthers. Carolina's goaltending was mediocre for much of the regular season and it wasn't much better in the playoffs.
Unlike last season, the Bruins probably would have rolled through this version of the Hurricanes, similar to what they did during the 2019 Eastern Conference Final.
Of course, there's no guarantee the Bruins would have steamrolled through the second and third rounds if they had beaten the Panthers, especially with Patrice Bergeron, Hampus Lindholm (and likely other players) dealing with injuries, but they would have had a pretty good chance of reaching the Cup Final regardless.
And that's what makes the first-round loss even more excruciating for the Bruins. The path would not have been super difficult. The competition wasn't as fierce as imagined. The 2023 playoffs were a golden opportunity for the franchise to win its second Stanley Cup this century. We could have had a Bruce Cassidy vs. the Bruins matchup in the Stanley Cup Final -- assuming his Vegas Golden Knights finish off the Dallas Stars (VGK is up 3-0). That would have been incredible.
The Bruins' shocking exit to the Panthers will haunt the franchise forever. The Panthers getting all the way to the Stanley Cup Final doesn't change that. In fact, it should make the disappointment in Boston even greater.