(Photo Credit: Michael Dwyer/AP Photo)

By Tom Calautti | Follow me on Twitter @TCalauttis

The second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is here, and the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers are set for a rematch. After Saturday night’s 2-1 overtime victory in Game Seven against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Black and Gold hopped on a plane and flew to Sunrise, FL, ahead of tonight’s game. Here’s a scouting report on the Florida Panthers as we prepare for Game One.

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Defense Wins Championships

When analyzing what makes the Florida Panthers such a difficult opponent, it’s easy to point to their high-octane offense or relentless forecheck. Still, the fact of the matter is they were the best defensive team in hockey this season. The Panthers allowed 198 goals and held opponents to 2.41 goals per game, leading the league in both categories. Factor in the team’s sixth-ranked penalty-killing percentage (82.5 percent), and you get a complete picture of how dominant this team is in their own zone. Florida is even more impressive if you look at its defensive metrics at five-on-five. At even strength, it allowed a league-low 119 goals, had the third-lowest expected goals against (146.91), and had the second-lowest scoring chances against (1487).

The Panthers’ defensive corps is led by seventh-year defenseman Gustav Forsling (10-29-39), the NHL’s top plus/minus skater, registering an impressive +56 (ten goals for more than the next closest player). Forsling is a strong puck-mover and athletic two-way defender who can shut down chances almost as efficiently as he creates them. He’s partnered with former number-one overall pick Aaron Ekblad, and that duo makes up the team’s de facto shutdown defensive pair. Look for these two to line up against David Pastrnak whenever his line takes the ice, and watch for them to anchor their team on every primary defensive zone faceoff.

The other player to watch on Florida’s backend is former UMass Minuteman Brandon Montour. Montour leads the team’s second defensive pair with newcomer Nikko Mikkola (6’5″) and has been a Bruins killer in the past. In last year’s first-round matchup against the Panthers, Montour posted five goals, three assists, and eight points across the seven-game series, including two goals in the clinching game. It’s critical that the Boston Bruins limit Montour’s offensive output if they want to keep pace in this series.

Florida’s defense was a strength this season, but that doesn’t mean the Bruins can’t take advantage of some potential matchups. Boston tagged Florida’s bottom pair of Dmitry Kulikov and Oliver Ekman-Larsson multiple times during the regular season and averaged 3.25 goals per game. So, if any team has a recipe against the Panthers, it’s Boston.

Hot Goaltending

Every hockey fan knows that a good goalie is essential to making a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Another thing going for the Florida Panthers is that their goalie is playing some of the best hockey of his career. Sergei Bobrovsky put up excellent numbers this season, posting a 36-17 record with a 2.37 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. His regular season statistics and team success earned the Russian goaltender a sixth Vezina nomination (two victories).

Bobrovsky has been solid so far this postseason but certainly had his hiccups during Florida’s first-round playoff series against Tampa Bay. Bobrovsky is 4-1 with a .896 save percentage and a 2.78 goals-against average. Bobrovsky allowed more than three goals once in the first round, surrendering six to the Lightning in game 4. If you remove that game from the slate, Bobrovsky allowed more than two goals just once during his first four games of the playoffs.

Bobrovsky also may have made the save of the playoffs in the first round, robbing Tampa defenseman Matt Dumba of a sure goal by twisting his body and throwing his back toward the open net, keeping a potential go-ahead goal out of his net. The Bruins were able to vanquish Bobrovsky in 2019 and have played well against him this season. If Boston can win the goaltender duel and make Florida’s netminder look pedestrian, they can steal this series.

Panther Offensive

As Bruins fans learned in last year’s series, the Florida Panthers have a long list of skilled forwards who can put the puck in the net no matter where they play in the lineup. The Panthers had the second-best goal scorer in the NHL this season, with Sam Reinhart lighting the lamp 57 games. In addition to Reinhart, Florida had one 30-goal scorer in Carter Verhaege and four additional 20-goal scorers (Matthew Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Sam Bennett).

Florida’s offense is impressive because of its ability to consistently forecheck and create pressure on opposing defenses, forcing them to make mistakes, take penalties, and surrender high-danger chances. When playing five-on-five hockey, the Panthers were second in the league in Corsi For Percentage, third in Scoring Chances For Percentage, and sixth in High Danger Chance For Percentage. These advanced metrics indicate that the Panthers are known for generating consistent and impactful offense against any opponent.

Florida’s one line has been incredibly dominant throughout the first round of the playoffs: Verhaege, Barkov, and Tkachuk. The three have accounted for half (yes, HALF) of the Panther goals scored during this playoff run and are a combined +14. This trio has played together as of late due to an injury to second-line center Sam Bennett, so there is a chance the Panthers will spread out their talent as the series progresses.

With Bennett’s health in question (he took a puck off the hand in the first round), the primary goal of the Boston Bruins should be shutting down (or at least limiting) the production of Florida’s top line. If the Bruins can limit their scoring opportunities and force the Panthers’ depth forwards to step up, the better chance they have to drag this series out.