How Brandon Montour paid homage to a teammate epitomizes the closeness of this Panthers team

Defenseman Brandon Montour strolled into his postgame press conference on Thursday after the Florida Panthers’ 5-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning wearing a customized shirt celebrating one of his teammates.

On the front on the red tee were six pictures of forward Nick Cousins with various facial expressions and attire, a joking homage to one of his closer friends on the team and one half of one of the Panthers’ one-two punches for keeping things loose in the dressing room.

“Just paying my respects to a good friend of mine,” said Montour, who scored the go-ahead goal as Florida took a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 playoff series entering Game 4 on Saturday. “I think the media and everyone has given him a little bit of heat this year. All fun with it. It’s just a funny thing we do in the locker room. Paying my respects to a good player and a good guy.”

Cousins at various points this season has been at the center of some negative attention from the hockey world.

On Jan. 6, Hockey Night in Canada analyst Kevin Bieksa called Cousins “a rat” for his run of controversial hits this season.

And then on Jan. 31, The Athletic released an anonymous player poll that had Cousins listed as the overwhelming favorite for “the player in the league whose face you most want to punch.”

Even more, Cousins earlier this week was named by the Hockey News as one of five “Villains” opposing fans love to loathe.

The Panthers have rallied behind Cousins all season amid the backlash he received. Thursday was just the latest example.

“We love that guy,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “It was kind of hurtful for everybody when they went after him because of how he plays. I just don’t see it. He plays hard. ... I thought it was overkill, to say the least.”

And for those who know Montour, him doing something like this is unsurprising. The defenseman is one of the primary jokesters on the team and knows how to keep the atmosphere light.

“He brings that lighthearted comedy to the rink all the time on the ice,” defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “You guys might not see it but even during plays and after plays on the bench, he’s always saying something funny. Sometimes you just want to punch him and other times it’s hilarious. It’s all good fun.”

A Matthew Tkachuk playoffs milestone

After scoring twice in the Panthers’ Game 3 win over the Lightning on Thursday, Matthew Tkachuk now has 21 playoff goals in 50 career postseason games.

Tkachuk is just the 12th United States-born player to score 20 goals within his first 50 playoff games. This list includes four other active players — Jake Guentzel, Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane and Tyler Johnson — as well as Tkachuk’s father, Keith Tkachuk.

Tkachuk is also the first Panthers player to have three career multi-goal playoff games.

This and that

Seven Panthers players have logged at least 11 hits through the first three games against the Lightning. Forward Evan Rodrigues leads the way with 15. Defensemen Niko Mikkola, Montour and Ekblad along with forward Sam Reinhart each have 12. Forward Eetu Luostarinen and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov each have 11.

Florida entered Game 4 having gone 10 for 12 on the penalty kill against Tampa Bay, which had the best power-play success rate in the NHL during the regular season.