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The 2022-23 Bruins didn't choke; they showed us who they really were

Tomase: Bruins didn't choke; they showed us who they really were originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

If we're being honest, the whole "greatest team ever" thing never really fit the Bruins.

The 1984 Oilers of Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, and Mark Messier? That's a greatest team ever. The 1986 Celtics with Larry Bird at the height of his powers and a Hall of Fame front line? That's a greatest team ever. Derek Jeter's 1998 Yankees that won 114 games and put a dynasty into overdrive? That's a greatest team ever.

But these Bruins? The only thing great about them was their record. Otherwise, they were basically the same club we've watched for the last decade – kinda, sorta a contender, but entirely capable of being KO'd in the first round.

When they hit the canvas for good on Sunday night, groping for their mouthpiece like Mike Tyson in Tokyo, pundits raced to declare their choke the biggest in the history of the franchise, the city, and the NHL. But we were never talking Mario Lemieux's Penguins or even Steven Stamkos' Lightning.

Disastrous end to Bruins' season will haunt the franchise forever

This was a really good Bruins team elevated to misleading heights by league-wide parity and a regular-season style of play that accentuated their strengths (depth) while minimizing their deficiencies (toughness).

And so as they begin summer vacation two months early, we can be shocked, but we shouldn't be surprised. Outside of new coach Jim Montgomery and the emergence of Vezina favorite Linus Ullmark, this was effectively the same Bruins team that got bounced by the Hurricanes in the first round last year and the Islanders in the second round the year before that.

Their all-time greatness was always a mirage, because the playoffs are about star power, and outside of 61-goal scorer David Pastrňák, the Bruins lack it. The B's had seven players compile between 50 and 67 points, from aging Cup winners Brad Marchand,  Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejčí, to middle-class forwards Pavel Zacha and Jake DeBrusk, to solid defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm.

The eighth-seeded Panthers, by contrast, skated the best overall player in the series in gritty 100-point scorer Matthew Tkachuk, as well as a trio of 70-point scorers in Alexander Barkov, Carter Verhaeghe, and Brandon Montour. Those four combined for 33 points, the last two coming when Tkachuk dug out a puck behind the Bruins net and started the sequence that ended with Verhaeghe roofing the Game 7 overtime winner.

That play highlighted a massive advantage the Panthers enjoyed once they asserted themselves: toughness. The Bruins played with dazzling tape-to-tape skill all season, but the Panthers bullied them over the course of three straight victories in a style reminiscent of the unheralded 2019 Blues, who beat the Bruins in seven games in the Stanley Cup Final.

The no-look back-handed passes that kickstarted breakouts during the regular season became appalling turnovers vs. Florida, which consistently made crossing either blue line a challenge. Players like Pastrňák prefer to operate with freedom and finesse, and even though he got his with five goals, far too often he was rendered invisible by rugged defensemen like Montour and the punishing Radko Gudas. It's a reflection of the one-dimensional nature of Pastrňák's series that he didn't record a single assist.

These four areas sunk Bruins in stunning first-round exit vs. Panthers

The Bruins' best player might've been Tyler Bertuzzi, a greasy grinder who muscled his way to five goals down low, none of them particularly pretty. He played with intensity. Too many of his teammates looked tentative and indecisive by comparison, and it brings me no joy to note that the iconic Bergeron returned for the final three losses to post a team-worst minus-6 while playing with a herniated disc.

Thanks to Bergeron, Marchand, and Krejčí, the Bruins were supposed to own a significant experience advantage, but they actually came up short in two key areas. For one, Montgomery was coaching in only his third playoff series while squaring off vs. the well-traveled Paul Maurice, who actually coached the final two seasons of the Hartford Whalers in the late 1990s before guiding the Hurricanes to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final.

For another, Ullmark entered the series with a lifetime record of 0-2 in the playoffs. His counterpart, Sergei Bobrovksy, had already knocked off the previous record-holder for most wins in a season with a first-round sweep of the 2019 Lightning in Columbus.

Combine those factors, and suddenly the loss feels less surprising and more inevitable.

The Bruins were never really an all-time great team, and now we know it.