A friend said to me before the start of this first round Bruins-Panthers series that the Bruins should sweep, and then swiftly proceeded to predict how some of the other series would go as if the Bruins would win with such ease that it wasn't worth dwelling on. I thought, "should they?"
About an hour before the game last night, I was talking on the phone with someone else who was going to be watching, and I said that I could easily see a Bruins loss occurring, almost as if it was a playoff trap game.
Here's something I know and that I don't take for granted: winning a game in the Stanley Cup playoffs is hard. To win, you probably need to play near your best. The same is not necessarily true in the regular season, especially if you're a dominant team. But in today's NHL playoffs, I don't care who you are--if you don't play right near your very best, you're likely going to lose the game you're playing.
For these opening games in Boston, I thought the Panthers were the better team. They've carried the play. Were it not for a bad goalie game from the Panthers in Game 1, and a good goalie game by the Bruins in that same contest, the Bruins would be down 2-0. They are fortunate to be tied. The Panthers won the Presidents' Trophy last year. They're not giving you anything. They're not awed by you and they're here to beat you. I'm sure they believe they can beat the Bruins. That belief is getting bigger.
I thought the Bruins were flat in the first game, and actually had juice last night in a game they lost 6-3. That's not a great sign. Bad turnovers. Some "hero ball" to use a basketball phrase. Marchand came to play last night. Best player for the Bruins. Shooting, possessing the puck--which is what you want to see from him.
They were chasing it for the first two periods, and then fell apart in the third. Pressure begins to grow now. Second guessing intensifies.
Why was Patrice Bergeron playing in a meaningless season finale in Montreal--just because he wanted to have family there?--where he suffered an injury that kept him out of these two games? How effective will he be when he comes back? His absence soured things from the start, though. Something wasn't quite right.
65 wins becomes the numerical monkey in the room. If you let it.
I don't fault Ullmark for last night's game. But he did have 5 goals against. Now what? By essentially using a platoon system--when you had the upcoming Vezina winner--that means you now get talk about starting Swayman in Game 3. You've created that drama. Noise to block out if you can block it out.
Ullmark hasn't had playoff success. That's just true. When was the last time he played three games in a row? Back in the fall when Swayman was out? When did he last play three games in five days? Ullmark is now one game away from taking a seat. You didn't need to create this situation. But if the Bruins go down 2-1 on Friday, chances are it's Swayman for Game 4. And that feels panic-y, but also what you'd perhaps have to do. Had there been a clear-cut number one, with the proper workload, this idea of goalie musical chairs would be more in the background. That's not how they set things up, though.
Right now, it's the Panthers and not the Bruins who are pacing to win this series. A loss by the Bruins in this series would be one of the all-time sports chokes. That's how it would be perceived. You don't want to be that team. Then the person who handles the Bruins' Twitter is doing posts afterwards about Ullmark winning the Vezina and Pastrnak being a first team All-Star and you're living off of that regular season as you're mocked?
Now, it's also not time to panic. Top-seeded teams lose games in the first round. Look at the 2008 Celtics--they needed seven games to get clear of Atlanta in their first round series.
But note the NHL playoffs--you get to them and watch for a bit and you start to think, "Hmmm, these two teams are fairly even." That's the nature of the beast. It changes from the regular season. Especially now. It's not the mid-1980s and you have stacked Edmonton taking on overmatched Winnipeg. Everyone comes to play, and just about everyone can beat you.
Game 1 should have signaled to the Bruins that it's wake-up time. Game 2 should signify to the Bruins that it's time to play their game. Get back to that. This means playing with structure and an integrated team effort in which all five guys are on the same page--the same sheet of ice, if one prefers--in all three zones.
Meanwhile, I see that Carolina is taking care of business, having won the first two games at home in their series.