A mere four days removed from the pomp and pageantry of the Winter Classic, the Bruins staged their workingman’s Wagner Classic Saturday night in a convincing 2-1 win over the Sabres at TD Garden.
The victory, their fourth in a row, had Walpole’s Chris Wagner, his Boston accent as fixed as Old Ironsides in the Harbah, knocking home one of the two goals and otherwise owning the Causeway Street sheet as if he claimed it by eminent domain.
It was a remarkable, bold performance, particularly around the net, Wagner rolling up a half-dozen shots on goalie Linus Ullmark in the two periods — more than triple his average output this season. He hit, he shot, he scored . . . in all, a fitting tribute to his maternal grandfather, Jim Phelan, who passed away Friday morning.
“So this was a special game for me,” said Wagner, 27, recalling that his grandfather often shuttled him to games around the Bay State in his youth. “Maybe he was watching out for me, making the puck follow me around, who knows?”
Phelan, said his grandson with the Spoked B on his chest, was “a Norwood guy through and through” and was rooting for him as usual on Tuesday in the Bruins’ 4-2 win over Chicago in the Winter Classic.
When Wagner knocked home the 1-0 lead midway through the first period Saturday, he was thinking of his granddad during his goal celebration, his fifth strike in Black and Gold since joining the franchise in July as an unrestricted free agent.
“Gave him a little tribute,” said a smiling Wagner. “He’d probably be a little upset that I even acknowledged him, but . . . yeah, a humble guy and I am going to miss him a lot.”
David Backes, bumped up to second-line duty after serving a three-game suspension, scored the other goal, posting the Bruins to a 2-0 lead only 2:00 into the second. Tuukka Rask, denied a shutout when Rasmus Ristolainen wired one by his short side with 2:38 left in the third, finished with 31 saves and ran his personal win streak to a season-high three games.
“We played as good as I remember for a long time,” said Rask, rarely facing a difficult shot in the first 40 minutes. “They hung in there, and got some kind of momentum in the third period . . . but we hung in there.”
The win left the Bruins with 52 points for the season and pushed them 2 points ahead of the Sabres, who have been hard on their tail for the No. 3 spot in the Atlantic Division and/or a wild-card playoff spot in the East.
The Sabres were without their top forward, the injured Jack Eichel, and it showed, their offense never quite in synch.
After running off a franchise-high 10-game win streak, the Sabres are now 5-8-4 in their last 17 games. The Bruins, meanwhile, now stand 7-2-0 in their last nine and look capable of putting heat on the Leafs for the second spot in the East.
Wagner potted his first shot of the night, only 20 seconds into the first period, trailing Sean Kuraly into the slot and knocking home the rebound after Kuraly landed a sharp wrister.
However, Kuraly also landed an unintentional smack on Ullmark after falling after his shot. Ullmark tumbled over, had little chance of snuffing out Wagner’s follow-up, and the officiating crew rightly denied the goal.
It was incidental contact, but contact nonetheless. Goalies have to have the chance to stop the puck.
The Bruins challenged the call, believing (hoping?) Kuraly had been knocked into Ullmark by a Buffalo defender. Neither the refs nor NHL HQ saw it that way.
“We figured it was a bit of a stretch,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, explaining why he challenged. “But listen, those guys work hard . . . lately, I can’t figure out some of the reviews, what stands and what doesn’t.”
Wagner finally put one on the board that counted, when linemate Noel Acciari forced a turnover in the mid-slot, some 35 feet in front of Ullmark, and tapped it ahead for Wagner. Wagner closed slightly and sniped home a low-slot wrister for the 1-0 lead.
Backes ripped home the 2-0 lead with 2:00 gone in the second. It was the 35th goal Backes has scored in his 2½ seasons with the Bruins and perhaps his most stylish. He lined up with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk on the No. 2 line.
“As a line, we had some glimmers of brilliance, and some other plays . . . we got hemmed in,” said Backes. “Our prowess, especially with Jake and Krech, is going into the offensive zone . . . I mean, it’s Game 1 with those two guys and I don’t expect it to be magical, but if we stay together, I only think it will get better.”
Wagner continued to put on a show throughout the night. He entered the evening with a meager 4-3—7 line in his 38 games, landing a total 63 shots on net, an average of fewer than two per game.
Overall, he finished with six shots, landed every one of them on net, and clearly was guzzling jugs of confidence and inspiration with every shift.
“That’s a pretty special night,” said Backes, noting Wagner’s performance in light of losing his grandfather.
“You couldn’t be more happy for the guy . . . hopefully he can get some family time now and bid farewell to his grandfather.”