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Colageo: Boston Bruins in Deep vs. Win-Now Panthers

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The Florida Panthers avoided a deep hole by winning a game without Sam Bennett, and now the Boston Bruins will have to do at least that much without Brad Marchand.

That’s the task tonight when the teams meet at 6:30 pm ET for Game 4 at TD Garden. A loss and the Panthers go home dormie, as in par the fifth hole, sign the scorecard, get ready for the Rangers.

What gets said below will get salty, but it’s not borne of outrage, only reality based on five-plus decades experience.

First let’s address the series.

The Atlantic Division-winning Panthers were rusty for Game 1 against a Boston Bruins team running on adrenaline amidst the quick turnaround from an emotional, Game 7 overtime victory against Toronto.

Game 2 for the Bruins was a lithium battery gone dead halfway through the first period. Desperate for their season, the Panthers played hard, then harder, and the Bruins, albeit willing (see David Pastrnak accept Matthew Tkachuk’s fistic challenge), had nothing in the tank.

With the series square heading to Boston, Game 3 delivered the first meaningful and consequential hockey of this series. The 6-2 drubbing so convincingly showcased Florida’s well-oiled, 5-on-5 cohesion, superior strength along the half walls and control of inside ice that Boston Bruins coach Jim Montgomery said immediately afterward, “I have to give the players a better plan.”

Monty elaborated to tell The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa that the team that establishes control of the puck in the attacking zone tends to prevail over a best-of-seven series. Thus, the need to reinvent his own team’s strategies heading into what amounts to a must-win Game 4.

Politely cross-examined by veteran columnist Steve Buckley regarding prior allusions to his own coaching shortcomings for clarity, context, detail … anything, Monty interrupted the question, “… whichever way you want to take it, it’s not good enough.”

When a hockey coach needs to go back to the drawing board during a playoff series to reinvent fundamental strategies, history has not been kind to that team. Invariably, that team loses the series and goes back to the drawing board in the offseason.

That’s the position the Boston Bruins are in now, not because Montgomery confessed as to his predicament but because the Florida Panthers have got the Bruins in their sleeper hold.

You may recall reference in this space to the “monkey wrench team of the playoffs,” the team that sends opponents’ coaching staffs into emergency meetings, turning day-long office outings into urgent think tanks with any and all ideas on the table (ie. Pavel Zacha to the bottom six – bet you didn’t see that one coming).

On paper, a 2-1 series is hardly a time to panic, but Montgomery didn’t set the all-time record of 65 wins last year without the ability to size up a situation.

Hockey historian and author Kevin Vautour’s pre-series assertion that the Bruins were the Titanic and the Panthers an iceberg is Montgomery’s reality at least until Game 4 is played. Maybe there is another plot twist, say a spirited rally – a Danton Heinen hat trick – that makes this a long series rather than a short one.

Absent of an unreasonable momentum swing, however, Montgomery inadvertently signaled that it’s time to step back and look at a performance that has substantially exceeded what the 2023-24 season of centennial celebrations had promised.

Backcheck: The Boston Bruins are a team amidst massive roster overhaul like we had not seen since they missed the 2015 playoffs.

Crosscheck: The Florida Panthers are trending toward the Stanley Cup.

Backcheck: Two years ago, Panthers General Manager Bill Zito saw fit to replace eight regulars from the 2021-22 team that put up 122 points and won the Presidents Trophy but got swept out of the second round by defending champion Tampa Bay.

The list of players Zito bid adieu in 2022 rivals what Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney was forced to replace in 2023: Jonathan Huberdeau, Patrik Hornqvist, Claude Giroux, Anthony Duclair, Noel Acciari, Mason Marchment and MacKenzie Weegar, along with Ben Chiarot, Frank Vatrano and “Jumbo” Joe Thornton.

Paycheck: While Zito’s overhaul was mainly a team-building exercise, Sweeney’s personnel holes were leveraged by a salary-cap chokehold that sent him shopping for unpolished diamonds at thrift-store prices.

Backcheck: Last year, the retooled Panthers started slowly with their many new faces but jelled in time to upend the record-setting 2022-23 Bruins, then won more convincingly in each of the next two rounds to reach the Cup final.

Forecheck: A year later, especially as Jeremy Swayman has been at his impervious best, it seemed that the less-is-more Bruins might be capable of a deep playoff run themselves.

Reality check: The Panthers have brought these notions back to reality, and despite their own cap-motivated roster tweaks, Paul Maurice’s machine hasn’t lost an ounce of its swagger.

Even all-highway-miles defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is buying in and mitigating the 2023 departure of roughhouse blueliner Radko Gudas. Talented newcomers Evan Rodrigues and Vladimir Tarasenko are keeping twin agitators Nick Cousins and Ryan “The Boston Strangler” Lomberg out of Florida’s lineup.

Forecheck: That’s the depth of a deep playoff run.

Similarly to how Lou Lamoriello’s New Jersey Devils built up to their quasi-dynastic decade of three championships and another Game 7, so do the Florida Panthers look poised and ready to take the final step to the podium.

They have gone through site-plan review and now have shovels in the ground.

This is the challenge that a Boston Bruins team in major flux is facing. With some cap flexibility this summer and developing young talent, the Bruins right now are not what they’re going to be in one or two years. That, of course, doesn’t make shadow-boxing hockey dads watching tonight on TBS any less lonesome for Shawn Thornton, Adam McQuaid, Johnny Boychuk and Big Zee himself.

It’s a frustrating time to be Boston fan.

As has been widely discussed over the last 36 hours, during a shift change shortly before Game 3 of the teams’ playoff series was five minutes old, Marchand leaned forward to hit Bennett, the left-shot center whose stick-holding right fist came across and socked Marchand, who went down in a heap where he lay for several seconds.

Incredibly – dangerously? – Marchand returned to action and even played into the second period before concussion symptoms ended his night and potentially his season. After the game, Bennett called Marchand, “a helluva player.”

Mutual admiration notwithstanding, the playoffs are a minefield for which the Florida Panthers have been built.

In the immediate, the Bruins will have to do what the Panthers did in Game 2 when they were trailing the series: Rally without the player who pulls their team into the fight.

Montgomery has said his piece about Bennett and his history for this sort of thing. Maurice  dismissed the collision like a weather event consistent with the spring climate. Reports indicate that the National Hockey League will not discipline Bennett.

If the Bruins are preoccupied with him tonight, the series and the season will end that much faster.

The NHL misses things and often assumes you missed it, too (see Jacob Trouba on Trent Frederic). The NHL then issues stern warnings not to the perpetrators but to the victims so as to preserve control, or at least the illusion thereof.

This is how it goes, this is how it’s always been done.

Ask a Bruins fan from any decade. They’ll tell you about Matt Cooke, Scott Walker, Michael Peca, maybe even Ulf Samuelsson and Chris Nilan … do I hear a request for Pat Quinn?

After Tkachuk challenged and hammered Pastrnak (tactically after Frederic and Pat Maroon had been ejected from Game 2), the NHL sent word the Bruins and Panthers that they’d be “under scrutiny.”

Bennett saw Marchand coming and gave “scrutiny” the kind of concern the Bruins will hopefully someday learn to give it. Asking Sasha Barkov for a shot at retribution under Marquess of Queensberry Rules shows just how much the Bruins have yet to learn.

So Bennett has eclipsed Tkachuk as the lightning rod for Boston-based vitriol. What warning will the Bruins now receive? The refs never miss retaliation. Again, no steam in this space, just a reminder of how this works, how it’s always worked.

The cure is to become a team more like them, and it’s not about attitude as much as personnel.

If the Boston Bruins’ best isn’t good enough, blame-gamers are going to fire Sweeney and Monty and volunteer to drive Charlie McAvoy to the airport. The talking heads will say that Montgomery got outcoached. If so, he’s in excellent company. But they’re not the difference in this series anymore than the goaltenders. What we seek to identify, what Monty saw so clearly on Friday night, is a picture of the different stations in which these franchises reside from a team-journey standpoint.

Check the steps. The Bruins as a hockey team are simply not where the Panthers are, and that renders a second-round appearance in the 2024 playoffs house money. It just never feels good when the house reaches into your blue paint and pulls back that money.

Seeing what Montgomery sees doesn’t make it any easier, but the fact is this is not the Bruins’ time. It’s Florida’s.

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