The Panthers may have publicly downplayed the importance of Thursday’s game against the Bruins, yet in private, they recognized how big their opportunity was.
And man did they ever cash in.
Thanks in part to second period goals from Reilly Smith and Vincent Trocheck, the Panthers not only ended a nine-game drought at TD Garden with a 4-1 win but took back first place in the Atlantic Division.
“There was pressure here, but that’s part of hockey,” said Roberto Luongo, who had not won here since 2010. Florida’s losing ways in Boston dated to 2011.
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“We’re going to be in a lot of pressure situations down the stretch and hopefully in the playoffs. We have to be able to handle the pressure. We did here.”
Boston, which has lost its past five, is in serious jeopardy of being jumped and left out of the playoff race by both Detroit and Philadelphia.
Following Thursday’s games, the Bruins are just a few points from being relegated to wild-card status and three from being on the outside looking in with seven games left.
“This was huge, an important game and everyone showed up to play,” said former Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton, whose team leads Boston by five points. “We had a rocky start but then got going. It was big. They all are down the stretch.”
The Bruins, who lost 5-2 in New York on Wednesday, came out flying at Luongo and the Panthers.
In the first, Boston’s Matt Beleskey thought he had a goal when Luongo bobbled his long shot and then lost track of the loose puck.
Defenseman Steven Kampfer, who has played all five skating positions for the Panthers this season, added goalie to his résumé by rushing in behind Luongo and sweeping the puck out of harm’s way.
“Luongo was real key at the start of the game, made some key stops for us,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “After that, I thought we took over the game. Boston got tired. They played [Wednesday], just came off a trip out west. It’s tough to come back and have to play back-to-back. We took advantage of that.”
The Bruins took a 1-0 lead on Ryan Spooner’s second-period goal, yet the Panthers looked refreshed and energized in the period and applied the pressure on Tuukka Rask.
Jussi Jokinen led the initial rush with Trocheck shooting on Rask and having Smith — traded to Florida from Boston last July — jamming home the rebound.
Five minutes later, Trocheck picked up a loose puck in the Florida zone while killing off a penalty and turned on the jets. Trocheck sped up the ice, ditching Loui Eriksson in the process, and firing high on Rask to make it 2-1.
Boston looked to tie the score with 11:57 left when Patrice Bergeron appeared to jam the puck past Luongo. After a lengthy review, video apparently showed inconclusive evidence the puck completely crossed the line leading to boos and beers tossed from the stands.
“Toronto makes those calls all the time so they must be sure it wasn’t in,” said Gallant, who said he initially thought it was a good goal.
A few minutes later, Jokinen made it 3-1 when he redirected Dmitry Kulikov’s long shot past Rask moments after a power play ended.
▪ Gallant said both Erik Gudbranson and Derek MacKenzie — believed to have suffered a fractured foot — skated with Willie Mitchell in Coral Springs on Thursday.
▪ Thursday’s win did not ensure Florida will be in first place for Saturday night’s game in Tampa. The Lightning, now two points back and holding the top tie-breaker, play host to the Islanders on Friday.