Florida Panthers road rally sends Cats home with 3-1 series lead over demoralized Bruins | Opinion

The Boston Bruins had almost everything they needed to tie this playoff series on Sunday night.

They had the home crowd. Had the desperation. Had the anger. Even had a 2-0 lead.

But the Florida Panthers had this:

The better hockey team. Again.

So an NHL second-round series that might have been tied instead heads back to South Florida with the Cats up 3-1 and able to win and advance on home ice Tuesday night.

In NHL history teams up 3-1 win the series 90.7 percent of the time. And Florida has two of a possible three remaining games at home including, if needed, a Game 7.

It was just one year ago that the Panthers themselves overcame a 3-1 deficit to the favored Bruins and won in seven games. But Florida is the favored team this time, and Sunday’s result had to be demoralizing to Boston -- team, city and fans.

The Bruins led 2-0 and it all fell apart Just as it did for them in last year’s playoffs against this same team.

Boston captain Brad Marchand missed the game -- which was historically noteworthy, considering he had played in 156 consecutive postseason games for the Bruins, a crazy streak. It was because of a hard hit by Sam Bennett in the previous game, a hit the angry Bruins said was dirty, a sucker punch, though no penalty was called.

“It was just a collision,” Cats coach Paul Maurice downplayed it.

That was one game after Florida’s Matthew Tkachuk leveled a right fist to David Pastrnak’s face in a one-sided fight.

Sunday Pastrnak gained a measure of retribution by scoring Game 4’s first goal eight seconds into a Bruins power play on a wicked 93-mph slapshot that beat Sergei Bobrovsky.

Bruins led 2-0 later in the first period on Brandon Carlo’s unassisted goal off a defensive turnover by Florida -- though the Cats led 15-5 in shots on goal at the time.

Down two goals, Maurice conveyed no worry.

“I like the way we’re playing,” he’d said during a TV timeout. “I like where we’re at.”

This is one reason why the Panthers are easy to love. Down 2-0, even on the hostile road? Well, you don’t worry. You certainly don’t panic.

“It’s the belief in this lockerroom,” said Bennett. “We knew we were getting it. Just a matter of time.”

He was right.

Anton Lundell, 22, backed up the belief with 5:09 left in the second period with his first goal of these playoffs to draw Florida within 2-1 on a shot just inside the far post.

“it kind of fired the belief,” said Maurice, who praised his young, rising star, saying, “He does a lot of hard things very well. It’s the hard things it usually takes young players a while to get used to.”

Florida tied it 2-2 a few minutes into the third period on a Bennett tip-in goal that somewhat miraculously survived a Boston challenge.

Video replays seemed to clearly indicate Bennett had shoved the Bruins’ Charlie Coyle into goaltender Jeremy Swayman, opening just enough net for Bennett to find with the puck. Boston coach Jim Montgomery screamed as the challenge was overturned and the goal upheld.

The obligatory “Ref you suck” chant filled the arena.

And Bennett had certified himself as a bona fide villain in Boston sports lore -- the controversial tying goal coming one game after he’d knocked the Bruins’ beloved captain Marchand from the series. Accentuating the rivalry and animus: Florida had just won in Boston for a fifth straight time in the postseason.

The controversial goal will resonate should the Bruins fall in this series as now seems likely.

Montgomery: “Coyle was on top of our goaltender, and if Coyle was able to stand his ground he would have cleared the puck.”

Bennett: “They got the right call. I put the puck in before Swayman was gonna get over whether Coyle was on him or not.”

The review agreed, acknowledging Bennett had shoved the opponent, but not sufficiently to affect the goalie’s ability to defend his net. Hmm. I don’t blame the Bruins and their fans for the outrage. I was surprised the goal was allowed to stand.

That is not to say the Panthers win was not deserved.

Captain Aleksander Barkov ended that discussion with a gorgeous goal with 12:29 left in regulation, lifting a wrist shot into the upper left corner past Swayman to make it 3-2 and silence the Bruins crowd.

Florida at that point led 35-18 in shot on goal. It would end 41-18.

“So much fun to watch Barky play hockey,” said Bennett. ”For him a highlight goal is just another day at the office.”

At the other end of the ice, Bobrovsky, after a rough first period including a second goal allowed that was a bit soft, was brilliant -- “Everything after that was world class,” said Maurice.

The first three games of the series had been decided by a 17-4 combined score but that did not mirror the tightness or intensity as much as Sunday’s one-goal margin finally did.

“This series is far closer than the final scores,” Maurice had said. “You gotta grind the heck out of it for 35 minutes and then somebody’s gonna get a break.”

The winning goal-scorer., Barkov, said of Boston, “The atmosphere, it’s great here. Not too many people cheering for us, but we can take that as a challenge. We do, actually.”

Said teammate Dmitry Kulikov of Barkov: “He carries the team.”

Sunday, he carried it to a potential (and likely) series-clinching game at home on Tuesday night.