The Bruins are in no position to complain about results.
So, with relief, they swiped the 4-3 overtime present the Sabres left at TD Garden on Sunday with hope that additional gifts will be theirs to claim in their search for a top-eight position.
"It felt like one of those games where we were leading the whole way," said Dougie Hamilton, whose 6-on-5 equalizer with 1:31 left in regulation pulled the Bruins back from a no-point dud. "It was kind of getting a little bit scary when we were in a losing position. Two late goals, and luckily we got the win."
The Bruins played like their skates were on fire on Hamilton's tying goal. With Tuukka Rask pulled, the Bruins swarmed the offensive zone. They won races for the puck. They gained net-front position, with the feather going in Brad Marchand's cap for tying up Mark Pysyk's stick. When Hamilton saw an opening over Jhonas Enroth's glove, he took it.
As Hamilton noted, they played like they were scared, which is not a bad thing.
They could have saved themselves a whole lot of anxiety had they played with such fear earlier in the game.
The Bruins controlled the puck-possession game. They attempted 71 shots compared with Buffalo's 35. They had their best scoring chances in the first and second periods.
For all that, the Bruins were less than two minutes away from dropping a 3-2 result to the down-and-out Sabres. That's because for all the work they do in gaining entry into the offensive zone, they're missing the last segment — goal-creating setups, second and third looks, determination to muscle out defensemen, decisive finishes — that good teams execute with the puck once they cross the blue line.
The Sabres played with fire by giving the Bruins clean entries into their zone. The Bruins didn't burn them enough.
"We managed the puck a lot better," said coach Claude Julien. "Lately, I haven't been happy with that, because it's almost been a one and done. You go in, take a shot, the puck's out, you're back in your own end. Tonight, we spent more time in the offensive zone. I think what's going on here is that our confidence level isn't where it is. Those small plays in tight are not quite all there."
It would be one thing if the Bruins fell short in this area against Chicago. When teams play the Blackhawks, they often call it a measuring-stick game to see how they match up against the league's elite club.
The Bruins played a different kind of measuring-stick game on Sunday. The Sabres have the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference. On Sunday, Buffalo played without Tyler Myers, Matt Moulson, and Patrick Kaleta. In the first, Matt Bartkowski — first with a wallop, then with a fight — ended the nights of Brian Gionta and Marcus Foligno. Michal Neuvirth, who was in line to start in goal, was too sick to play. The Sabres are in the middle of an all-out rebuild.
Right now, the Bruins are a lot closer to the Sabres than they are to the Blackhawks.
Hamilton and Torey Krug are the only defensemen pushing the offensive pace. For every game Milan Lucic plays with thunder as his soundtrack, he goes silent for two more. Loui Eriksson is a dependable No. 3 right wing, not a top-line presence. The fourth line, missing for more than a season, put zero pucks on Enroth.
For a team that has to work its tail off to score every goal, the Bruins make too many mistakes that end up in their net. In the second, Eriksson should have driven the puck deep into the offensive zone, which would have allowed the Bruins to change personnel. Instead, Eriksson launched a weak wrister that Chris Stewart stopped to trigger the counterattack. By then, Krug had gone off. Three forwards were caught up the ice. Seconds later, Andrej Meszaros finished a 3-on-1 rush at 6:06 to tie the score at 1.
In the third, the Sabres pulled ahead. Nicolas Deslauriers pushed the puck down the right side and gained easy entry into the Boston zone against a backtracking Dennis Seidenberg. Then Tim Schaller, called up from Rochester for the game, walked the puck out from behind the net. Somehow, Schaller scored his first career goal by slipping the puck through Rask at 1:27 of the third, giving Buffalo a 3-2 lead.
"For whatever reason, we kind of handcuff ourselves a little bit," Seidenberg said. "That certainly comes with confidence. It just hasn't been there in the past few games, weeks, months. Hopefully it's a breakthrough and we get something started here."
Hockey is a game of mistakes. But it's hard to recover from repeated blasts to the foot when you're having trouble walking in the first place. Because they can't score, the Bruins' margin of error is so thin that mistake-free hockey must be their rule, not the exception.
"Wins are tough to come by these days," Julien said. "When you get them, you take them. You try and build on the positives. When you're not scoring, you dissect the game into every little mistake that's made. Every time your team goes flat for a few minutes, you look at all that stuff. Just trying to be careful here and look at the big picture. I thought our guys, overall, played hard."
The Bruins used to brush off weakened opponents like Buffalo with a yawn. That's not the case anymore. The Bruins worked hard and had good luck to win. These days, anything less doesn't produce results.