(Photo Credit: Michael Dwyer / AP Photo)

By: Jason Cooke | Follow me on Twitter / X @cookejournalism

One question loomed over the Boston Bruins’ heads heading into their must-win Game Four against the Florida Panthers. Would the Bruins respond to two straight lopsided losses and their captain being sidelined by a questionable hit? It was all the buzz at Boston’s morning skate on Sunday. All they had to do was prove it.

And did they ever. Well, for one period.

After a first period that included two Bruins goals and all the momentum in the world, Boston finished the game thinking they could push a 2-0 lead to the finish line at TD Garden. The result? A three-goal salvo from the Panthers to win 3-2 and take a commanding 3-1 series lead with Game Five on Tuesday.

Anton Lundell cut into the deficit in the second period until Sam Bennett and Aleksander Barkov put the exclamation point on the comeback in the third, as the Panthers fired 42 shots on Jeremy Swayman. Bennett—who is already facing controversy this series for his hit on Brad Marchand—scored a questionable goal following an unsuccessful Bruins challenge in the third period. Bennett appeared to cross-check Charlie Coyle into Swayman seconds before the game-tying tally.

“Toronto ruled that it was a good goal,” Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery said postgame. “That the play didn’t interfere with the goal. That’s the explanation I got.

“We thought that Coyle was on top of our goaltender, and if Coyle was able to stand his ground, he could have cleared the puck. That inhibited our goaltender from being able to react to playing the puck.”

While the Black and Gold mustered just five shots on goal in the first period on Causeway Street, they made the most of their opportunities. But before they potted two goals in the frame, the Bruins–particularly Charlie McAvoy–set the tone on the very first shift.

“We had a good start,” David Pastrnak said. “We got an early lead, and we were physical. We were on the pucks, we just have to make sure we (keep going). We can’t sit back in the playoffs against teams like them. You have to extend the lead.”

McAvoy drilled Sam Reinhart on a Panthers breakout attempt, driving his shoulder into the 57-goal scorer to erupt the TD Garden just 15 seconds after the drop of the puck. The Bruins were adamant about not getting pushed around for a second straight game, and they addressed that shortcoming from the get-go.

From there, Swayman made 15 saves, and the Bruins killed a pair of Florida power play attempts as Pastrnak and Brandon Carlo put the hosts on the board. Pastrnak’s laser came on the man advantage, one-timing a feed from Jake DeBrusk below the goal line to open the scoring and solidify their statement start.

Carlo doubled Boston’s lead at 15:12 of the period, firing a wrist shot toward Sergei Bobrovsky that sneaked past him for a 2-0 Bruins lead. Though it wasn’t a high-percentage shot by any means, it was a shot on the cage nonetheless—something the Bruins have been yearning for this series. Boston totaled just 18 shots on net on Sunday.

“Obviously, they have a fantastic goaltender over there, so you don’t want to be just throwing stuff into his chest,” Carlo said. “I think those gritty goals and throwing pucks to the net and maybe finding a rebound is something we can do a better job of.”

So that’s what the Bruins did in the second period. While they doubled their first-period shot total with ten—including seven high-danger chances, according to Natural Stat Trick—they couldn’t get anything past Bobrovsky. DeBrusk squeaked one through his legs on a breakaway, trickling past the post and wide in what was perhaps Boston’s best opportunity of the period.

But on Florida’s 27th shot of the contest, they finally broke through on an Anton Lundell one-timer from Evan Rodrigues. Swayman continued to be under fire during the period, and the Panthers finally ripped off the band-aid to cut into the deficit.

“This is a tough building to play in,” said Barkov. “I like how we played in the first period even though they had two goals. We liked our chances and we just kept going and pushing and getting better.”

The Panthers indeed got better in the final frame. Boston managed two shots on Bobrovsky, and Florida sneaked back into the matchup when Bennett cashed in on a power play at 3:41. After a Boston challenge, the goal stood. Less than four minutes later, Barkov drove to the net before flipping a chip shot over Swayman’s pad. Suddenly, the Panthers were in the driver’s seat.

Despite a six-on-four opportunity in the game’s final minutes, the Bruins couldn’t score the tying goal. For just the second time this postseason, the Bruins are pushed to the brink of elimination, eying a do-or-die Game Five on Tuesday.

“My mind is not there right now,” Montgomery said of Tuesday. “It’s a tough loss, and we’ll start looking at ways to improve again tomorrow.”