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The Boston Globe

Sports

Kevin Paul Dupont

It won’t be easy for Bruins to douse Canadiens’ fire

P.K. Subban spoke with a referee after Shawn Thornton sprayed water on him.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

P.K. Subban spoke with a referee after Shawn Thornton sprayed water on him.

Shawn Thornton, that little squirt, caused a ruckus Saturday night late in the Bruins’ 4-2 win over the Canadiens at the Garden. Overzealous, and underthinking, Thornton employed his water bottle to treat P.K. Subban to a free facewash as the talented Habs defenseman skated by the Boston bench.

NBC cameras zoomed in on Strongman Shawn and caught him animatedly shaking his shoulders with laughter on the bench as the perturbed — some might say histrionic — Subban professed his objection to a nearby referee. That exaggerated chuckle on Thornton’s part doesn’t fit well with coach Claude Julien’s buttoned-down, respectful approach to standard NHL protocol.

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It will cost Thornton $2,820.52 and could cost him a lineup spot in Game 6 of the series Monday night in Montreal, although such was not the case in 2011 when then-Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference flipped off the Bell Centre crowd following his goal midway through the second period of a playoff game. Ference was fined $2,500 for what the league deemed “an obscene gesture,” his grand oiseau to the locals following his goal midway through Game 4 of the first-round series.

The Bruins won that night, then packed up for Game 5 in Boston. The lying Ference made it out to be an “equipment issue.”

The key difference this time is that Monday’s Game 6 is in Montreal. Irate CH fans now will be poised to, shall we say, rain down on everyone and everything Black and Gold after seeing their star defenseman — no stranger to animation and playing to the crowd he — dissed with the Water World treatment by Boston’s fourth-line cop.

In and of itself, Thornton’s squirt gun treatment is an old, amateurish, beer-league act that would barely rate a mention if this were, say, mid-February. But from a Bruins perspective, it unnecessarily handed the Habs a rallying point in a playoff series that the Bruins now lead, 3-2. Never a good thing.

The water cascaded harmlessly across Subban’s visor, and though he didn’t make much of it in his postgame comments, it’s the very stuff that can get inflated and conflated in the ever-emotional matchup between these storied franchises. As a mountain can become a molehill, a trickle of water can become a tsunami.

Ridiculous? Of course. Totally absurd. But with all of Sunday and most of Monday for Montreal to simmer and steam about it, nonsense was officially mixed into the equation.

One can hear Montreal talk radio now:

“Rejean, from Laval . . . you want to talk about Shawn Thornton . . . ?”

“Yes, I do! That no good (bleep) . . . Irish descent (bleep) . . . no-good Boston (bleep . . . bleep . . . bleep . . . )”

The win Saturday night gave the Bruins a stranglehold on the Habs. The mischievous Thornton — his devilish grin the look of a schoolboy who slipped the whoopee cushion onto the teacher’s chair — might have loosened a pinky on that grip. If Thornton were an elite scorer, no way would Julien consider telling him to sit out a potential clincher vs. the Habs. But as a resident tough guy in a series that has had zero fights and but one two-minute roughing penalty, he’s the sacrificial lamb that need not be offered sur glace to the crazed Canadiens masses. Julien could drop Thornton from the lineup, say “tsk, tsk”, and roll Jordan Caron into Line 4 wing duty with Merlot Bros. Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell. Habs fans still will keep their index fingers poised over the numbers “911,” but it would remove Thornton’s smiling (read: taunting) face from the Bell Centre above-ice megascreen.

At full energy, Thornton is unquestionably a plus in the Boston game plan. But at full stream ahead, he’s a diluted product, at least on May 12, 2014, in Montreal, with an E-ZPass ticket to the Eastern Conference finals waiting to be collected.

Sure, that might sound sophomoric, but consider where this all started. Thornton hardly earned himself a varsity letter with his mainstream message to Subban’s kisser. Many Montrealers are already in a huff, rightly so, over racist slurs fired at Subban following his Game 1 heroics in the Hub. Those were faceless assaults. Now, if Habs fans want, they’ve got Thornton’s mug as their face to hate, their rallying cry, their bleu, blanc, rouge raison d’etre.

Silly. Nothing to do with hockey. But what opened the door to that potential theater of the absurd? Yep, Thornton, Peck’s Bad Boy in that No. 22 sweater. Think of that Habs shot that ricocheted off Zdeno Chara’s skate in Game 7 in that 2011 series between these clubs. If not for that, maybe no Cup.

Sometimes the margin of victory, the invitation to move on to the next round vs. the ticket to go home, can be so slim. Which is why, especially in the best of times, with the Habs right there to be rubbed out, Julien doesn’t need to worry about high school hijinx erupting at the end of the bench. Thornton knows better.

We said the same just a few months back when he lost his cool and cuffed Brooks Orpik from behind, knocked him to the ice, then proceeded to pop him a few times in the face while he was on his back. Clearly, the Orpik thing showed Thornton has an anger management issue. Heck, he’s made himself a lot of money off his anger management issue, although it went way too far that night with Orpik (Google: Thornton, Shanahan, 15-game suspension).

Now Thornton has shown he has a humor management issue, and really, though kind of funny, maybe even LOL funny, it’s no laughing matter in the context of how far the joke could go. Rarely have the Bruins gone to Montreal in the postseason with house money jingling in their pocket. That’s where they will be Monday, smack in the middle of what long was their city of playoff horrors, with a one-win cushion in the best-of-seven series.

Even if they lose, they still have Wednesday night at home to try to clinch the series, a chance to play in the Cup semis for a third time in four seasons. Rare ground. What the Bruins don’t need Monday night is for their emotions — be they anger or comedic — to get the best of them. Habs fans will file in with memories of the Ference Finger and the Thornton Facewash both refreshed and fresh in their memories. Our heroes are their hated. That’s not new. But right now, Monday night in Montreal is going to be about Saturday night in Boston.

Thornton gave them that, on a silver platter, and with a stream of well-aimed water. Sounds like the perfect night for Strongman Shawn to take in the game from a French bistro, maybe near the old Forum.

“A glass of red with your dinner, monsieur?” the waiter will say.

“No,” Thornton will grumble. “Just water. Just water.”

Sometimes it can be so much more.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.

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