Within the progression of any postseason series comes increased tensions and heightened emotions. The higher the stakes, the harder the hits.
Every inch of available open ice becomes more precious during each shift. The post-whistle scrums become more heated. Occasionally, a pair of willing combatants decide to throw down and exchange fists.
But there’s a catch. Sometimes emotions can get the better of a team. In other instances, a squad can unite and fight for one another.
Through the first four games of their first-round series, the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers provided opposite ends of the spectrum. And it all came to a head Sunday afternoon in Sunrise in Game 4.
“Our guys have done a really good job trying to play between the whistles,” general manager Don Sweeney told the media during Boston’s off-day on Monday.
Just as they did in Boston during Game 2, a desperate Panthers bunch wanted to avoid facing a significant series deficit. Florida showcased that desperation early, firing 10 shots on goal within the first eight minutes and change.
Florida couldn’t solve Linus Ullmark. Then they watched Brad Marchand net a gritty power-play marker. Afterward, they tried multiple times to bait the Bruins into retaliatory methods.
They didn’t bite. Instead, the Bruins dictated the hitting and physicality, beginning with Charlie McAvoy’s open ice hit on Matthew Tkachuk.
The Bruins wouldn’t back down from any scrum, hit, or other moments of tension. They played between the whistles and, at times, engaged in post-whistle activities.
The Panthers, meanwhile, unraveled.
Tkachuk took liberties with Garnet Hathaway after the first period, delivering a late, unnecessary cross-check to Hathaway’s ribs. Jake DeBrusk capitalized on the first Tkachuk incident, giving the Bruins a 2-0 lead off a brilliant feed from Dmitry Orlov early in the middle 20.
The frustrations continued to boil, even as the Panthers cut the deficit to one — twice — on Tkachuk’s second-period marker and Sam Bennett’s third-period power-play tally. But they couldn’t overcome their Game 4 deficit.
Nor could they keep their emotions in check.
Tkachuk continued his trend as the series villain. Another cross-check at the end of the second period, an exchange of slashes with McAvoy and an altercation with Linus Ullmark highlighted his bitter afternoon.
“It was a different day at the office, definitely,” Ullmark said after notching an assist and a 10-minute misconduct in Game 4.
Ullmark skated back to the bench as Jeremy Swayman couldn’t contain himself, grinning from ear to ear.
Tkachuk returned to the locker room, hoping he’d escape supplemental discipline. The former Calgary Flame now has a lighter wallet after the NHL Player Safety Department fined him $5,000 for his cross-check to Hathaway.
The Panthers proverbially poked the bear throughout Game 2, capitalizing on turnovers and overwhelming the Bruins physically to even the series.
That subpar performance didn’t sit well with the Bruins. Nor did Florida’s antics. Among the notable altercations included Trent Frederic’s choking allegation against Ryan Lomberg, and Tkachuk’s hot mic moment following an exchange with Tomas Nosek near the benches.
Without Bergeron and Krejci in South Florida, the Bruins turned to their next core of leaders to withstand the heated playoff intensity, including Marchand. Instead of escalating tensions, Marchand and the rest of the Bruins remained composed.
“I think he sees there’s bigger things at stake,” Bergeron said of Marchand’s leadership following his return to practice on Tuesday. “There’s more important things as a team, but also individually and to put the egos aside. I think he understands that. He’s been a great performer in the playoffs, stepping up and being a leader on and off the ice. And it’s the same thing right now.”
The Bruins provided timely physical and offensive responses in Games 3 and 4. They return home with Bergeron potentially making his playoff debut in a series-clinching scenario Wednesday night.
Tkachuk will once again try to rattle the Bruins and embrace the boos likely coming to him every time he touches the puck. He’ll try to get a supporting cast involved, including Radko Gudas and Ryan Lomberg.
And Ullmark and company will remain prepared for every challenge the Panthers throw at them.
“It’s just playoffs. Everyone plays physically,” Ullmark said. “It doesn’t matter what happens out there; I’m just a part of the game as well. There’s going to be guys crashing the net a little harder, trying to whack the pucks out of your gloves, and try to cause mayhem with those dirty goals. We do the same thing. It’s nothing new.”
With their season on the line, the scrappy Panthers hope to drag the Bruins into the sandbox. But given the Bruins’ response in Games 3 and 4, they’ll need to find other engagement methods.
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