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Dave Hyde: Sam Bennett finds even bigger way to be Boston’s villain in Panthers’ 3-2 win

Growing up, Sam Bennett’s dad encouraged him to play like rugged Toronto Maple Leafs scorer Doug Gilmour. Bennett saw his developing game more like another physical producer, Mike Richards, of the Philadelphia Flyers and the Los Angeles Kings

Boston sees him closer to someone else: Satan on skates.

Feels good, doesn’t it, to have a South Florida team so good and a player so on the edge that another city boos him every time he touches the puck? Boston did Sunday in Game 4, except for the most important time Bennett touched it in the Florida Panthers’ 3-2 win.

It happened too quickly. Bennett found a loose puck in the crease, pushed Boston’s Charlie McAvoy out of the way and slapped it in the net and tied the score 2-2 in the third period.

And all Boston broke loose over a Bennett hit. Again.

He’s played two games since returning from injury and is center stage in two series-shaking controversies. It started earlier Sunday when a reverse-angle replay from Game 3 showed Bennett either raising a right hand to protect himself from Boston captain Brad Marchand’s hit or punching Marchand with the stick in his hand. Marchand went in pain to the bench. He missed the third period. He missed Game 4.

Boston played the victim card. Their fans booed Bennett before Sunday’s game. Boston fourth-line tough guy Pat Maroon challenged Bennett to a fight before Sunday’s game, which was as much for show as Marchand challenging Panthers star Aleksander Barkov to a fight in the opening Game 3 faceoff.

Bennett not only wouldn’t fight Maroon because as a second-line center the talent difference going to the penalty box would be an edge to Boston. But Bennett also couldn’t fight because he just returned the previous game from a broken hand or wrist.

“It was pretty awesome,’’ Bennett said afterward on TNT about the attention. “I never got booed before so it was a new experience. I kind of enjoyed it. It makes the game that much more intense, more exciting for me. So, yeah, bring it on.”

The win really made his night enjoyable. That’s the cover to everything else that happened. The Panthers came back from down 2-0 to win on goals by Anton Lundell, Bennett and Aleksander Barkov. The local narrative is the Panthers are one win from the Eastern Conference finals.

The Boston narrative is they’ve being cheated and cheap-shotted by Bennett. When Bennett pushed Coyle into Boston goalie Jeremy Swayman, Bruins coach Jim Montgomery challenged the play. It was a legitimate question, wondering where the rule book draws the line. And the replay reviewers at NHL headquarters in Toronto ruled it a legitimate goal with the idea Bennett gave Coyle a light push and Swayman couldn’t have stopped the puck anyway.

“I believe I’m putting that puck in before (Swayman) is getting across,’’ Bennett said. “I believe that’s why it stood. And that’s why it’s the right call.”

Montgomery didn’t just see it differently. His melt down is a viral clip.

“What do I think about the decision on the Bennett goal?” he said. “I’ll tell you what I think. F—Toronto. It takes a room full of nerds watching frame by frame on monitors to determine the play was a good goal. Are you f—— kidding me?

“It’s obvious to anyone in the building tonight that Sam Bennett pushed Coyle into Swayman, which caused the puck to go in. If Coyle wasn’t cross-checked there, he would’ve cleared the puck out and Swayman would’ve gotten across. The NHL officiaiting is an abolsolute embarrassment. I’m doing with this s—. No more questions.”

None needed, either. This is Exhibit A on what Bennett has done to the Bruins. He’s a magnet of menace — and it’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? When’s the last time anyone from South Florida was considered Public Enemy No. 1 by anyone?

Was it the Dolphins’ Bryan Cox running on the field, middle fingers flying, in Buffalo in the mid-1990s? Or maybe the Heat’s P.J. Brown for flipping the New York Knicks’ Charlie Ward over the baseline? Do we really have to go back three too-empty decades to find a player on a team of consequence that a town hated for how he played?

The difference is the villain role is an accepted actor in playoff hockey. Marchand has made a career of perfecting it. Just last series, Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said there wasn’t another player, “who gets away taking away (Todd) Bertuzzi’s legs the way that (Marchand) does. It’s an art and he’s elite at it.”

The footnote to Bennett’s Game 3 hit of Marchand was iMarchand challenging Barkov to a fight in the pre-game face-off circle. The footnote to that was the Panthers’ Matthew Tkachuk punching Boston’s David Pastrnak to the ice and the hitting Pastrnak when he was on his knees. Another victim card from Boston.

On hitting Marchand, Bennett said on TNT, “Obviously, I’m not trying to punch him in the head like everyone’s saying. I’m just bracing myself for him to come and hit me. There’s no time I’d have time to think about punching him in the head. People can think what they want. There’s going to be some hard plays. It’s unfortunate he got it, but it’s a hockey play in my mind.”

It’s a hockey series the Panthers are now in full control of because they’re the better team. That’s how South Florida sees it. Not that we’re the hockey experts like Boston, whose fans are dropping victim cards and turning this series into a morality play centering on Bennett.

“There’s been lots of energy with this, lots of coverage,’’ Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “I think (some media) have lost your mind with this. That’s OK. That’s your right. We’ve been a very disciplined team. We have. It’s gone unnoticed.”

What’s not unnoticed is the Panthers are one game from returning to the conference finals. They come home to Sunrise for Tuesday’s Game 5 where Bennett won’t be Satan on Skates. He’ll be the Hero on Ice. That’s another role he might not be used to playing.

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