Bruins properly channel hatred of Panthers, and now it’s a series

Bruins properly channel hatred of Panthers, and now it’s a series originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

For three games, the Bruins played the Panthers on Florida‘s terms. They scrummed after whistles, challenged the bench to fights, and ill-advisedly watched their best player drop the gloves before getting tuned up by a grandchild of Medford.

The Panthers laughed in their faces, filling the Bruins with the kind of rage typically reserved for the kid whose big brother smacks him with his own wrists and innocently asks why he keeps hitting himself. Your fury merely feeds their mockery.

Continue on that path in Game 5, and the B’s would scatter to the wind for the summer. So they changed course and stopped trying to beat the Panthers at the game the Floridians have perfected.

And now we have a series.

Boston’s 2-1 win was the first close game out of five, but don’t let the lopsided scores fool you. The two teams are producing great theater marked by visceral hatred, and as the series returns to Boston for Friday’s Game 6, the Bruins have finally learned their most important lesson – trying to retaliate for Florida’s various transgressions will inevitably end badly.

It’s so tempting, though, because the Panthers are one smug-ass team. Matthew Tkachuk, the aforementioned pugilist, looks like he’d sweep the leg for Cobra Kai without even being asked. Sam Bennett is to dirty play what Mark Zuckerberg is to ruining American discourse – by the time you realize what’s happened, it’s too late. Even head coach Paul Maurice acts like the Bruins are beneath him.

The Panthers are agitators and instigators and irritants, and they’re so much better at it than you. But that didn’t stop the Bruins from trying to engage in fruitless extracurriculars throughout Games 3 and 4; if I had to hear about “Big ol’ Paddy Maroon” basically begging someone to fight him like a desperate grizzly one more time, I might’ve taken a hammer to my TV.

There was none of that in Game 5. The Bruins jumped the Panthers early and then held on for dear life, needing a brilliant performance from goalie Jeremy Swayman, who stonewalled Sam Reinhart on the doorstep in the closing seconds.

The Bruins stopped meekly taunting the Florida bench, and they stopped jostling to fight before every other faceoff, which just isn’t their game. They instead took the body, laid out 49 hits, and otherwise shut up about it. After letting the Panthers take up collective residence in their heads for three games, they conducted a cranial eviction just in time.

This does not change for one second how hateable the Panthers remain, or how much the Bruins would love nothing more than to smile and tell them to (insert expletive here) in the handshake line. The Panthers are tremendous villains, because they give you a little bit of everything.

They’re dirty, as evidenced by Bennett’s sucker punch to the back of the head of Bruins captain Brad Marchand. The play was so sneaky, it took a camera from Canada to unearth it a day later. Bennett’s unconvincing explanation – did he really have time to punch Marchand on such a bang-bang play, he’s just asking questions – was the definition of gaslighting. It’s easy to understand why the Bruins want his head.

The Panthers are arrogant, too. Maurice’s in-game interview during Game 4 was breathtaking in its nonchalance. Yeah, Florida trailed 2-0, but he liked how his team was playing and two goals was nothing. His tone suggested he would finally let the cat eat the mouse after batting it around for a bit. He couldn’t even pretend the Bruins scared him.

The Panthers are annoying. After Brandon Montour scored Florida’s sixth goal in Game 2, he started a brawl that ended with licking motions in the direction of Marchand, who has been known to engage in the act. The Panthers have also taken multiple dives, including one that was finally penalized on Tuesday night.

They’re also tough as nails. This series has produced hit after hit, and the Panthers can give as good as they get, from rugged defenseman Niko Mikkola to the more talented Bennett and Tkachuk. When Florida has dominated – which has been often – it’s been because of its relentless work on the forecheck. This isn’t some high-flying pretty-boy team. The Panthers can mix it up as well as anyone.

Finally and most importantly, they’re absurdly talented. When the Panthers set up in Boston’s end, they’re dazzling. They win pucks on the boards and then play keep-away with videogame passes. It’s hard to imagine the Bruins withstanding the assault of even Florida’s relatively down Game 5 for two more tilts. Winning this thing is going to take a lot of luck and even more Swayman.

That said, it’s not impossible, and if the Bruins can pull it off, they’d not only exorcise last year’s demons, they’d wipe those smirks off the Panthers’ faces in the most rewarding way possible – by sending them home.