Because it’s a business measured and judged in wins and losses, there were many long faces at the Garden Saturday afternoon when the home team filed off the ice, shoulders slightly slumped, after a 4-3 overtime loss to the Sabres.
Alex Tuch, once among the resident shooters at Boston College, ended it with a quick shot by Jeremy Swayman from the low slot, finishing a play in which the puck twice ticked off Patrice Bergeron near his own net — first on a pass from left wing, then on the shot from the middle.
The chances of that happening to Bergeron, of course, are about the same as getting hit twice by lightning in the Public Garden on New Year’s Eve. But, you know … hockey.
In a season when they rarely lose, the Bruins, and their fans, find it nearly impossible to believe when another two points don’t get pinned up in the W column. Even with the OT loss, the Black and Gold are 28-4-4 and sitting atop the Original 32 standings with 60 points.
They’re not perfect, but they’re about as close as can be, almost as close as a Zamboni scraping blade gets to the ice.
What made Saturday different than most of the first three months of 2022-23 was the delightful amount of loose ice made available throughout the afternoon. Neither team could impose its defensive will, which often made for entertaining, back-and-forth, firewagon, go-kart hockey.
Again, if only the W matters, it can be easy to forget the overall entertainment product, the show. It really was wonderful entertainment. If Broadway performances were summed up with W’s and L’s, we’d focus on the two points and not the acting or the singing or the dancing or how the bit player with a minor role stole the show. The Great White Way would be at least 50 shades of gray.
For 63 minutes and 53 seconds, the Bruins and Sabres went off script, played a lot of loose pond hockey, poured seven goals into the nets and filled the afternoon with suspense.
In a throwback to the Before Times, there was even a fight, with Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton putting some solid licks on Sabres center Peyton Krebs. It gave the Garden some of that ol’ timey Adams Division feel, absent, of course, Mike Foligno leaping higher than a rodeo stunt clown after one of his snipes off the wing.
“Not a game we want to be a part of,” said Brad Marchand, who did a great Wayne Cashman imitation with his play out of the corner, setting up Bergeron’s power-play goal that squared it, 2-2, early in the third period. “You know, that’s not typically the games we want to play … we didn’t do a a good enough job overall, limiting their abilities.”
Marchand provided the go-ahead strike a little more than seven minutes after Bergeron’s equalizer. It came with the Sabres all flummoxed amid a line change. Just the kind of big ol’ boo boo that drives coaches crazy. But for those in the stands, it makes for … wait for it … boffo entertainment.
Are we not here to be entertained? Hello? More errors, please.
“They’re a team that’s got a real good transition,” said Bergeron, asked how this game was the midseason anomaly. “I think sometimes that does open it up a little bit when you fall into that run-and-gun type of hockey. There’s a lot of skill on both sides and both teams like to play fast — sometimes there are breakdowns and you are going to have odd-man rushes. That’s what we saw.”
Ideally, noted the captain, defensive structure, which happens to be the basis of his Hall-of-Fame game, would keep all that from happening.
“The type of game that was open on many occasions,” he said in summing up the day.
So, Bergeron was asked, not fun to play?
“Yeah, not my favorite,” he said.
Drop the same game at the side of Jersey Street on Monday afternoon, for the second Winter Classic at Fenway Park, and we might need bullpen cop Steve Horgan to flash us his arms-raised W. Pond hockey would seem just what the puck doctor ordered for the great outdoors.
“It can be exciting for fans, a lot of back-and-forth action,” mused Marchand, whose game showed some added jump. “But if games are like that, it means we aren’t on top of our game.”
Successful teams want to stick to the script. The Bruins constantly talk “details.” That’s code for tight play in the back end, smart outs with the puck, intelligent play across the offensive blue line.
Script. Script. Always the script.
“You know, more boring defensive hockey,” added Marchand. “You know, we control pucks down low, make plays at the other end. But we forced it a little bit too much.”
No telling what that means for Monday afternoon, in part because outdoor games come with an X factor — a sheet of ice, even when at its best, that just isn’t up to the standards of smooth, groomed, and cured indoor ice. Passes are harder to execute. Pace of play often has to slow down because the puck can’t keep up the speed.
“The games are always a little different, just because the ice is always really bad,” said Marchand. “Everyone will work hard. There’ll be some bouncing pucks and we’ll battle through it. I wouldn’t expect it to be this loose, because of the team [the Penguins] we’ll be playing. It’ll be bouncing around a lot, and we’ll be chasing it. But that’s part of it.”
It’s outdoor hockey, which means something wicked this way is surely to come.
Let’s hope it’s as wicked good as it was inside Saturday afternoon at the Garden … W’s and L’s be damned.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.