As three different fights erupted only seconds after the puck was dropped, the Bruins-Lightning game provided a hockey wake-up call Saturday afternoon, a rollicking start that quickly pushed the TD Garden temperature past boiling. For two teams with history, two teams with animosity, and most of all, two teams with simmering Stanley Cup dreams, the on-ice mayhem came as no surprise, a tasty appetizer of the intensity of playoff hockey yet to come.
It was Bruins forward Garnet Hathaway who took the worst of it, as the team’s newest fourth-liner was on the receiving end of a flurry of Pat Maroon blows. The 6-foot-3-inch, nearly 240-pound Maroon landed punches as the two tussled into the boards, but none proved a knockout blow against a similarly formidable Hathaway, who stands 6-3 himself.
Hathaway stood up to the test, and it was a theme one of the newest Bruins carried throughout the afternoon. With a late-second-period goal that proved to be the game-winner in the 2-1 victory, Hathaway earned the last laugh. More importantly, as the Bruins inch ever closer to the postseason of this transcendent regular-season campaign, Hathaway is earning his place on the ice.
Acquired along with Dmitry Orlov in a pre-trade deadline deal with Washington, Hathaway’s ongoing integration into a deep and talented lineup is yet another reason to believe this record-setting year could end with a title.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” he told reporters. “I’m really happy to be here, really glad to be here. I felt like part of the team from the very beginning. I feel like I’ve been part of the team to get the team to where they are already, being a part of it, and then instantly taking a role and trying to help this team continue to where we want to go. That’s just how this group is, so inclusive.”
His goal was the best answer he could have given to the early Lightning antics, when it was obvious coach Jon Cooper’s squad was ready to push any buttons possible, attempting to use their notorious physicality to upend the streaking Bruins while also rousing themselves out of their recent slumber. But as Hathaway made sure, it’s the Bruins who continued winning (make it six in a row) and the Lightning who kept on losing (four straight).
Scored at 17:32 of the second period, Hathaway took full advantage of a second chance after Matt Grzelcyk’s initial shot rebounded off Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, picking it off in midair. The goal seemed to wake the Bruins from a mid-period slumber, and they barreled through a dominant third behind the continued excellence of goalie Linus Ullmark.
With the memory of the three early-first-period power-play opportunities that netted but one measly goal, scored on a Patrice Bergeron deflection of a Brad Marchand shot, the Bruins knew they had wasted the chance to take a more commanding lead. And they knew they might have paid dearly for it when Victor Hedman scored a shorthanded goal, tying the game near the end of the period with an 89-mile-per-hour rocket of a shot.
Hathaway was there for the rescue, making it two game-winning goals for the Bruins. His first goal beat the Red Wings for what was then the team’s 50th win. This time, with a mere 7:23 time on the ice (thanks to a few more squandered in the penalty box), he made such an enormous impact, showcasing the snarl and skill that makes him sort of a hybrid of throwback enforcer with modern-day finesse.
“I mean, I think it’s why we were so excited when we acquired him,” Bruins coach Jim Montgomery said. “He’s a guy who builds your team game in all three zones and then he understands momentum, he understands when the other team is trying to impose their will and he does a great job imposing our will.”
Saturday’s game was certainly a test of wills, and for the Bruins, this weekend’s back-to-back challenge of Tampa followed by a flight to another nemesis in Carolina is actually a welcome pre-playoff, late-season litmus test. With the Atlantic Division clinched by Saturday’s win, Montgomery couldn’t help but laugh as he opened his postgame remarks by saying, “That’ll get you excited for the playoffs, huh?”
The tone was set early — “We had an inkling that Tampa Bay was going to want to play an energetic, emotional game, though I didn’t know it was going to happen that quick,” the coach added — and it was the Bruins who ultimately rendered a verdict on who would maintain it for the duration. With a heaping dose of help from Hathaway, they got it done.
“I think even as a team we’ve been looking forward to this, to a team that’s going to be in the playoffs, one that we potentially could see, a team that’s battling right now and you’re going to play that same way,” Hathaway said. “It’s encouraging for us as a [fourth] line and for us as a team to play that way, play to our identity. That’s how we’re going to have to play in a couple weeks.”
Once upon a time, when Hathaway was on the other side of the ice, he was known to do anything he could to get under the Bruins’ skin. But however much he might have annoyed them then is as much as they love him now. As Marchand laughingly admitted in a recent episode of the team’s “Behind the B” series, there is really only one downside to the addition of Hathaway and fellow former nemesis Tyler Bertuzzi, another trade deadline acquisition.
“I don’t have anyone I dislike now! I love everyone in the league. All the guys I hate are now on our team.”
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.