On Wednesday at TD Garden, in Boston’s first major sports event following Monday’s Boston Marathon attacks, the Bruins tried to make it a normal game day.
They went through all their rituals: morning skate, afternoon nap, pregame kicking around a soccer ball, warm-ups. Routine, after all, is an athlete’s comfort zone.
There was nothing routine, however, about the 3-2 shootout loss to the Sabres. Even one in which the Bruins clinched a playoff spot.
“It didn’t really feel that normal today,” said Andrew Ference. “It wasn’t normal. Everybody’s mind-set was different. It’s good now to move on for everybody in the city, not to forget about anything, but do what we’re proud of. That’s to be a community, get out, and do these kinds of things. I think that’s important for everybody. It was anything but normal tonight.”
In the dressing room after the game, there was a Black-and-Gold reminder of why nothing was normal about the night. A Bruins jersey with 617 stitched in the middle, flanked by the words “Boston” and Strong,” hung as a reminder of why Patrice Bergeron and Kevin Porter fought for the opening puck. The Bruins wanted to show everybody present at the rink and watching at home that their adopted hometown was not afraid.
Perhaps that’s why the Bruins looked especially numb postgame.
“It’s one of those games that you really wanted to get not only for the team but for the city,” Bergeron said. “It’s disappointing. But we’ve got to bounce back.”
Hockey players are as tough as they come. The Bruins had two return to their lineup as Bergeron and linemate Brad Marchand were back after sitting out because of concussions.
Neither looked like he had missed any time. Bergeron, out for the last six games, landed a team-high six shots and won 13 of 17 draws in 19:52 of ice time. Marchand, sidelined for two games, had four shots, two hits, and repeated run-ins with the Sabres in 15:30 of action.
But even tough guys like Bergeron and Marchand couldn’t stop from crying before the game. A pregame tribute — pictures from Monday on the scoreboard, a rink full of fans singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” — made hardened hockey players well up with tears.
“Very, very emotional,” said Shawn Thornton. “Hard to keep a dry eye, to tell you the truth. The anthem and the memorial on the scoreboard were very special. It was very well done. It was fully expected. But still, not an easy thing to get through.”
The Bruins tried their best to flush the emotions from the game early. Their third line of Daniel Paille, Chris Kelly, and Nathan Horton set the pace with a goal at 5:45 of the first period. Kelly muscled Christian Ehrhoff off the puck low in the Buffalo zone. Once Kelly gained control, Paille broke for the net. He punched in Kelly’s feed to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead.
Thomas Vanek answered with a power-play goal at 18:20 of the first. But the third line responded with another goal at 14:48 of the second period. This time, Kelly was on the receiving end. After taking a pass from Ference, Paille spotted Kelly open at the far post. Ryan Miller (41 saves) denied Kelly on his first shot. But Kelly lifted his second attempt over Miller’s pad to give the Bruins a 2-1 lead.
“I thought that line was very good for us tonight,” said coach Claude Julien. “Bergeron’s line was good too, as far as moving pucks around. Those two lines had a real decent night.”
The Bruins were a minute from a regulation win. But a bad bounce off Ference’s stick ended up over the glass, leaving the defenseman in the box to serve a delay of game penalty at 19:12 of the third. Twenty-one seconds later, Cody Hodgson tipped a Vanek feed past Anton Khudobin (30 saves) to tie the game at 2-2.
In the shootout, Tyler Seguin, Bergeron, and Marchand were foiled by Miller. Khudobin did the same to Vanek and Nathan Gerbe, Buffalo’s first two shooters. But Drew Stafford ended the night by firing the puck past Khudobin.
“We wanted to go out there and win that hockey game,” Kelly said. “I’m disappointed that we didn’t. We wanted to give the city something to be happy about. We went out and battled hard. I’m not taking that away from the guys. But we really wanted to get the two points and hopefully put a smile on someone’s face. I’m pretty upset that we didn’t.”
The losing team usually bolts for the dressing room while the winners congratulate their goalie. Wednesday night was different. Both teams gathered at center ice to offer a stick salute to the fans.
“We’re thinking of everyone,” Marchand said. “They’re in our thoughts and prayers.”Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.