BUFFALO – The Bruins didn’t follow a prescription for success here Friday night in what at first glance could look as if it was a routine, ho-hum, what-else-is-new? 4-1 win over the Sabres, one of the NHL’s bottom-feeding soft touches for the last decade-plus.
Truth is, the spunky Sabres came out running and gunning at Key Bank Center, peppered 15 shots on net in the first period, and with a touch of puck luck against their ex-goalie, Linus Ullmark, could have taken early command of the scoreboard.
Instead, amid the Sabres flurry, the Bruins squeezed out a pair of first-period goals (David Pastrnak and Tomas Nosek), boosted the lead to 3-0 in the second (Charlie Coyle, PPG) and then easily held on for the win in front of a sparse crowd of only some 6,000 — a grim reflection of the blizzard of apathy that has blanketed the western New York franchise.
Ullmark, who bolted this sorry season in July and signed a $20 million free agent deal with the Bruins, was the underlying storyline, even before the Bruins arrived in town. In the end, he turned back 35 shots, beaten by fellow Swede Victor Olofsson late in the third when the Bruins were all but packing their bags for Sunday’s Garden matinee vs. the Sharks.
Calling the night both a “lifelong memory” and “special,” the 28-year-old Ullmark watched his former teammates fire 68 shots his way (28 more than the Bruins launched at Craig Anderson), with the likes of Dylan Cozens, Rasmus Dahlin, and Tage Thompson each denied on the six shots apiece they landed on net.
“I really wasn’t thinking, it was more like an out-of-the-body experience,” said Ullmark, asked how he felt during pre-game warmups, working for the visiting team in the building he once called home. “Then I kind of settled in when the puck dropped.”
Asked to add some context to his “out-of-the-body” comment, he said, “It was enjoyable ... you know … it felt familiar, just being on the other side this time.”
Taylor Hall popped in an empty-net goal with 1:48 remaining in the third, just under four minutes after the Olofsson strike ruined Ullmark’s bid for a fourth career shutout.
Pastrnak and Nosek each scored in the first, the Bruins able to mount a 2-0 lead despite getting soundly outshot, 15-7, and forced to play in their own end much of the period.
Pastrnak, blanked in the first two games of the new season, connected for the opener with only 3:49 gone, after Brad Marchand (two assists) stripped the puck from Dahlin in the right corner.
Pastrnak, who scored 20 times last season (third best in the batting order) snapped off a one-timer from the right wing circle before Anderson could react in net. Bruins, 1-0.
Nosek scored his first in a Bruins uniform after coach Bruce Cassidy shifted him off the third line to ride with Taylor Hall and Charlie Coyle on the No. 2 line. The trio moved the puck with speed and precision down the slot and Nosek, his blade firmly on the ice near the left post, saw Coyle’s feed bank off his stick and into the net.
Craig Smith, who took Thursday as a maintenance day off, started the night on Coyle’s right wing. When Nosek moved up, Smith dropped down to the third line with Jake DeBrusk and Erik Haula.
“I know what I said the other day, I thought the pieces fit,” said Cassidy, referring to his comment Tuesday that he figured he might not have to alter his lineup. “I guess they unfit.”
The Sabres appeared to have the 2-0 lead cut in half around the 18:20 mark when Cozens slipped a backhander under Ullmark’s right pad from the top of the crease. The puck looked certain to cross the goal line, only to get cut off by Ullmark’s left leg.
“It felt like it trickled in,” said Ullmark, among those who initially felt it crossed the goal line. “When the puck didn’t hit my right pad, it felt like it was going to go in, then when it hit my left leg it felt like it was rebounding out from the back of the net.”
Buffalo held a lopsided 29-8 advantage for shot attempts in the first period, an apt indication of how they carried play.
Play balanced out in the second period, but again the Bruins managed the only scoring with Coyle connecting on the power play at 5:17 to boost the lead to 3-0.
Parked at the bottom edge of the left wing circle, Coyle snapped in a pass that Marchand threaded through the slot from the opposite circle. Anderson was too late to cover the near post and Coyle had the Black-and-Gold’s first power-play strike of the season.
From the press box, the small crowd gave the night the feel of an exhibition game.
“I wouldn’t say that, based on our experience of the last couple of years, having the fans in the building is a blessing,” said Bruins backliner Brandon Carlo. “I think we take it in that regard and just appreciate who’s there … a lot of Bruins fans in the crowd tonight and we’re always thankful for that.”