Boston Bruins\' Dennis Seidenberg, center, celebrates in a huddle with teammates Joe Corvo (14) and Tyler Seguin (19) as Florida Panthers\' Tomas Kopecky, left, skates away after the Bruins scored their fourth goal in the first period of an NHL hockey game in Boston, Friday, Dec. 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
BOSTON - The Santa hats came flying out of the stands to celebrate Brad Marchand's third goal of the game, and the Boston fans began taunting the Florida Panthers by chanting, "Merry Christmas!"
The defending Stanley Cup champions are heading into the holiday break the same way they started their summer: As the hottest team in hockey.
Marchand had his first career hat trick and a career-high five points to help Boston beat Florida 8-0 on Friday night, giving the Bruins their sixth consecutive victory and their most lopsided win of the season. Boston has won 20 of its last 23 games.
"Everyone's playing the same level as last year," Marchand said. "We need to keep it going the whole year. That's the goal right now."
Marchand scored a short-handed goal to start things off, assisted on Boston's fourth and fifth goals and then scored twice more in the third. After making it 8-0 midway through the third period, the sold-out crowd of 17,565 showered the ice with all kinds of headwear, including a fair number of Santa hats.
"You can't put into words how the last year and a half have gone," said Marchand, who was fighting to make the team during training camp in 2010 and wound up a key player on the NHL champions. "All the things kind of lined up, and it's been great."
Patrice Bergeron had a goal and two assists, and Tuukka Rask made 30 saves for Boston for his second straight shutout—a scoreless streak of 155 minutes, 10 seconds. The backup to Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas, Rask is 7-1-1 in his last eight starts.
"Lots of goals. It's good for the fans," Rask said. "You pretty much feel if you don't mess up you're going to be fine."
Milan Lucic, Benoit Pouliot, Dennis Seidenberg and Gregory Campbell also scored as Boston moved into the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins have four days off for Christmas before playing Phoenix on Wednesday.
Jose Theodore allowed four goals on 14 shots in the first period and was replaced by Scott Clemmensen. The former Boston College goalie made 17 saves the rest of the way.
"It was an old-fashioned butt kicking. There's really nothing to say," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "I'm usually a glass-half-full guy, but there's nothing to say."
The Panthers were playing their third game in four nights, including a 4-3 overtime loss to Ottawa on Thursday. They have lost all three.
"It was a frustrating night," defenceman Ed Jovanovski said. "We've played a lot of road games and, not to make excuses, we're a pretty banged-up team right now. Now we have a couple of days off and hopefully we can rest up and get some guys back."
It was a matchup of division leaders and teams fighting for the lead in the East.
And it was never close.
Marchand gave the Bruins the lead six minutes into the game, circling around the back of the net and into the slot before putting his shot off Theodore's chest, under his arm and into the net. Lucic made it 2-0 at 13:40 and Pouliot gave Boston a 3-0 lead with the prettiest goal of the night, picking up the puck after a faceoff in the Bruins zone and taking it the rest of the way down the ice.
He made a move at the left circle, faked out Panthers defenceman Dmitry Kulikov and then, falling to his knees, backhanded the puck past Theodore.
It was obvious the Panthers' goalie, who had a 40-save shutout against Boston on Dec. 8—the Bruins' only regulation loss at home since October—was having an off-night. But Dineen thought he could wait another 89 seconds until the end of the period to make a change.
Instead, Seidenberg made it 4-0 just 31 seconds later with a slapshot from the point—assisted by Marchand.
Marchand also assisted when Campbell scored to make it 5-0 just 3:50 into the second. After Bergeron made it 6-0 later in the period, Marchand opened the scoring in the third with a shot that deflected into the net off a Panthers defenceman.
Tyler Seguin set up Marchand for a one-timer past Clemmensen to make it 8-0.
Notes: PGA champion and rookie of the year Keegan Bradley, who grewup in Massachusetts, dropped the ceremonial first puck. ... Bruins national anthem singer Rene Rancourt sang Christmas carols during the break between the second and third periods. ... Bruins F Rich Peverley did not play because of an undisclosed injury. ... The Panthers were without F Stephen Weiss, their No. 2 scorer, who left Thursday night's game against Ottawa with an undisclosed injury. The Panthers have lost five players to injury in their past four games; they are without seven forwards in all.