The Florida Panthers looked like a completely different team when Sam Bennett stepped on the ice for Game 2 of their first-round series against the Boston Bruins — his first game since March 20.
In Game 1, they were passive offensively and seemed content to throw shots on net from the outside while Boston’s stout defense and goaltender Linus Ullmark gobbled up every chance they got.
Once Bennett stepped in, it was a different story.
Following the 6-foot-1, 195-pound centerman’s lead, the Panthers drove the net more aggressively and evened the series up with a 6-3 win in Game 2.
“Everyone expects that he is a dangerous player, especially in the playoffs,” Brandon Montour said. “He plays the right way and he plays hard.”
There was no apparent rust on Bennett despite the severity of the suspected groin injury he was returning from.
Bennett burst out of the gates fast and absorbed all of the contact he could as he kept gunning for chances near the front of the Boston net.
And he cashed in when Tkachuk chipped a puck right to him as he was driving to the slot to give the Panthers a 1-0 lead 1:42 into the second period.
That play set the tone for the rest of the team as Florida continued to dominate the game 5-on-5.
Boston kept drawing even every time the Panthers took the lead due to some blunders on special teams but at even strength, the team continued to take on the identity of Bennett’s game.
They drove the net hard and fought for the best chance available.
Shortly after Montour gave Florida the lead to start the third, Bennett made the play that ultimately sealed the deal.
He made a big hit in the offensive zone on Charlie McAvoy that sent Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe on the attack.
Tkachuk found Verhaeghe driving to the slot and he beat Ullmark to score the deciding goal.
Panthers coach Paul Maurice made the decision to reunite the trio shortly before Bennett’s opening goal and they stuck like glue ever since.
It was like they were never separated in the first place.
“I think we have a little bit of everything on that line,” Bennett said.
“[Verhaeghe] plays with all of that speed and [Tkachuk] is one of the best in the league at controlling pucks down low and in front of the net, so it’s really easy with two guys with different skill sets. They’re both unbelievable at what they do.”
Games like this have been where Bennett has made his impact all season.
The stat sheet might say that he only finished with a goal but he created another one with a hit and played solid hockey in the defensive zone.
Not to mention the fact that his presence opened things up for the rest of the team — namely the fourth line which was on the ice for a pair of goals while playing with the same mentality.
While his regular season numbers say he scored 12 fewer goals (16) and nine fewer points (40) than he scored during his career year in 2021-22, he has continued to be one of the most impactful players on the team.
“His point production was down a bit, but Tkachuk, Verhaeghe and Eetu Luostarinen have had career years and all three of those guys have played with Bennett for the better part of the year,” Maurice said.
“That’s his strength. He drives the play and he plays so damn hard. What do they always say about great players? They make the players around them better.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS, ROUND 1
BOSTON BRUINS (ATL1) VS. FLORIDA PANTHERS (WC2)
GAME 3 (Series tied 1-1)
- When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, TNT
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Regular Season Series (Tied 2-2): @Boston 5, Florida 3 (Oct. 17); @Florida 5, Boston 2 (Nov. 23); @Boston 7, Florida 3 (Dec. 19); @Florida 4, Boston 3 OT (Jan. 28)
- Last Season: Boston won 2-1
- All-time Regular Season Series: Boston leads 60-38-6, 6 ties
- Playoff History (Florida leads 1-0): Panthers 4-1, 1996 (first round)
- First Round Schedule — Game 1: @Boston 3, Florida 1; Game 2: Florida 6, @Boston 3; Game 3: at Florida, Friday, 7:30 (BSF, TNT); Game 4: at Florida, Sunday, 3:30 (BSF, TNT); Game 5: at Boston, Wednesday, April 26 TBD (BSF, TBA); Game 6*: at Florida, Friday, April 28; Game 7*: at Boston, Sunday, April 30.