Boston Bruins’ Most Favorable First-Round Matchup

While teams continue to battle for playoff positioning as we close in on the end of the regular season, the Boston Bruins are on cruise control and have a chance to clinch the Presidents’ Trophy this week. The Bruins’ regular season has been one for the ages, and it’s time now to begin focusing on the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the season winding down, the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins all remained in the midst of the wild-card race. However, when looking at the Bruins’ season series against each of these clubs, one team provides the most favourable matchup for Boston.

New York Islanders

Since making a big splash ahead of the trade deadline and acquiring former Vancouver Canucks captain Bo Horvat, the Islanders have gained traction in the standings and may be a dark horse in the Eastern Conference. Since acquiring Horvat, they have put together a record of 13-6-4 and have jumped into the first wild card spot with 85 points. The Islanders boast one of the best goalies in the NHL and a potential Hart Memorial Trophy candidate in Ilya Sorokin. The 27-year-old has a 27-19-7 record, along with a league-leading five shutouts. He also has a 2.39 goals-against average (GAA) and a .923 save percentage (SV%) and could be a game-breaker come playoff time.

Ilya Sorokin New York Islanders
Ilya Sorokin, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Not only do the Islanders have the goaltending needed for playoff success, but general manager Lou Lamoriello has also put together a gritty team that is built for playoff hockey. The club is solid defensively as well, as they rank fourth in the NHL with an average of 2.68 goals against per game. Key injuries have also plagued the Islanders throughout the season; offensive leader Mathew Barzal has yet to resume skating as he has been out since Feb. 20 with a lower-body injury. Aside from Barzal, the team is looking as healthy as they’ve been all season; defenseman Adam Pelech has been a steadying force on the blue line since returning from a concussion scare in December.

The Bruins swept their season series with the Islanders and outscored them by a margin of 14-6. The first meeting back on Dec. 13 required a shootout to decide the winner; David Pastrnak scored in the shootout on Semyon Varlamov to cap off the win. On Jan. 18, the Bruins scored four unanswered goals to rally back from a 1-0 deficit after the first period, picking up a 4-1 win at UBS Arena. Varlamov also started in goal for the second meeting and allowed four goals on just 24 shots. In their most recent meeting on Feb. 18, Boston dominated with a 6-2 win, although once again, Varlamov manned the Islanders’ net. The Bruins were 3 for 8, while the Islanders were 0 for 12 on the power play through the season series. The Bruins also outshot the Islanders 84-80 over the three games.

David Pastrnak Boston Bruins
David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Despite the dominating season series against the Islanders, the two clubs are not far removed from their 2021 second-round playoff series. Boston lost that series in six games, with Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock playing a significant role in shutting down the Bruins’ offense. Another key factor to look at is that Boston has yet to face the Islanders’ bonafide number-one goaltender, Sorokin, this season.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Another possible first-round matchup could be the Pittsburgh Penguins, who, if the playoffs started today, would be the Bruins’ opponent. The Penguins have had a fairly inconsistent season. At times, they’ve played like true contenders in the East, but on the contrary, they have left a lot to be desired too many times this season. They put together a seven-game win streak in December, but aside from that, they’ve gotten inconsistent results for much of the campaign. The aging core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang still provide a huge threat for opposing teams. But the Penguins have depleted scoring depth and a mediocre defence corps to go along with the shaky goaltending from Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith.

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The Bruins have won the first two meetings this season against the Penguins and are set to play for the final time on April 1. In the first meeting, Boston picked up a 6-5 overtime win in dramatic fashion. After trailing the game 5-2, the Bruins scored three unanswered goals and tied the game late in the third period. Hampus Lindholm scored the overtime marker 3:37 into the extra frame to give the Bruins the victory. The two teams also took part in this year’s Winter Classic at Fenway Park in a tight contest where forward Jake Debrusk played the hero on NHL’s center stage. With the game seemingly destined for overtime, he found the back of the net with 2:24 remaining to seal the victory.

The Penguins rank 16th in goals for and 18th in goals against this season and also have the 15th-ranked power play, clicking at a 21.5 percent success rate. Of the top three teams remaining in the wild card race, Pittsburgh is the least physically imposing, and that could go a long way over the course of a seven-game series. In addition, the Penguins’ offense drops off dramatically after Crosby, Malkin and Jake Guentzel, who have 85, 75 and 66 points, respectively. Jarry also has struggled mightily in his limited playoff experience, posting a 2-6 record to go along with a 3.00 GAA and a .891 SV%.

Florida Panthers

The Panthers currently sit just three points behind the Penguins for the final wild-card spot. But despite sitting on the outside looking in, they may be the biggest thorn in the Bruins’ side when comparing the three possible first-round matchups. Led by super-pest, Matthew Tkachuk, who is destined to pass the 100-point mark for the second consecutive season, the Panthers boast a solid four lines and rank fifth in goals for while averaging 3.45 goals per game. They have a formidable power play, ranking 11th while converting on 22.1 percent of their chances.

On the opposite end of the ice, the Panthers have had some difficulty this season, as they rank 24th in goals against, allowing 3.45 goals per game. Their penalty kill is less than desirable, as it sits near the bottom of the NHL, ranking 28th at 74 percent. They are also highly penalized, averaging 11.6 penalty minutes per game, not a good look when your penalty kill struggles to keep the puck out of the back of the net.

Matthew Tkachuk, Florida Panthers
Matthew Tkachuk, Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Bruins and Panthers split their season series with two wins apiece this year. Boston won the first meeting on Oct. 17 by a score of 5-3 despite being outshot 41-34. The Panthers answered back by defeating the Bruins 5-2 on Nov. 23, putting an end to the Bruins’ seven-game winning streak. Special teams played a significant role in that game, with Florida going 3 for 7 with the man advantage. In the third meeting between the two Atlantic Division foes, Patrice Bergeron had a four-point night en route to a 7-3 win for the Bruins. The final meeting of the season series required overtime, and Sam Reinhart lifted the Panthers to a 4-3 win just 17 seconds into the extra frame.

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Should the Panthers claim the final wild card spot, they will give the Bruins a run for their money in the first round. Tkachuk will be a key factor in any playoff series for Florida and will most definitely get under the skin of any opponent over the course of a seven-game series. Goaltending remains an issue for the Panthers, as Sergei Bobrovsky hasn’t delivered on his massive $70 million contract signed in 2019.

Bruins’ First-Round Matchup Won’t Be A Walk In The Park

Regardless of who the Bruins end up playing against, their first-round matchup won’t be a walk in the park. They will undoubtedly enter as heavy favorites but will need to turn the page quickly from their historic regular season if they want to shake the notorious Presidents’ Trophy “curse” for a lengthy playoff run this spring. The last team to win the Stanley Cup and the Presidents’ Trophy in the same season was the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks, who clinched their championship against the Bruins in Game 6 at TD Garden.

While a divisional matchup between the two would arguably be the best for entertainment purposes, the Panthers are the least favorable matchup for the Bruins in the first round. After adding Tkachuk for the sole purpose of his grittier, in-your-face style of hockey, Florida would be a tough opponent for any team. As the season series demonstrates, they have the skillset and roster that provides the biggest challenge for Boston. A best-of-seven series against the Panthers would take its toll on the Bruins, who would be much better suited to play against the less physically imposing Penguins.

Although the Bruins dominated the season series, they have yet to play against Sorokin this season, and his elite goaltending could change the matchup enormously. The Islanders’ gritty forward group also presents the same wear and tear factor as the Panthers. The additions of Horvat and Pierre Engvall, along with a potential return of Barzal, give the Islanders enough offense for their defence to carry them in tightly contested playoff hockey. The seven-game series would have a much different outlook in comparison to the three games played in the regular season.

In conclusion, that leaves the Penguins as the most favorable first-round matchup for the Bruins. Despite Crosby and Malkin still being high-level threats offensively, the Bruins’ depth would be too much for the Penguins to handle. With four strong lines, the Bruins would expose the Penguins’ defence and questionable goaltending and although all playoff hockey is a physical battle, the Bruins would be best prepared for their next opponent following a series with the Penguins.

Bruins’ Depth Will Prevail

Overall, the Bruins’ three key additions at the trade deadline, Garnet Hathaway, Dmitry Orlov and Tyler Bertuzzi, will play a huge role this spring. Regardless of the opponent, they are built for the postseason, and it would be an immense challenge for any team to compete with the level of grit and skill they now have. Taylor Hall and Nick Foligno have both returned to practice with the club, and Boston has the luxury of resting up their players to close the season as they get dialed in on what hopefully will be a long playoff run.