In the first period, the first loud cheer from the TD Garden crowd was sarcastic.
The rest were in earnest, and Tuukka Rask earned the bulk of them.
Fighting back from a miserable first period and winning with what coach Bruce Cassidy called “our ‘B’ game,” the Bruins emerged with a 3-2 decision over the Sabres on Thursday night, holding off a hungry club that had two wins in the previous month.
Brad Marchand scored twice, and David Pastrnak became the first player this season to reach 20 goals, for the Atlantic Division-leading Bruins (14-3-5).
But Rask stole the two points and the spotlight.
He made 36 saves on 38 shots, and his spectacular denial at 4:51 of the third will be replayed all season long.
From below the left circle, Buffalo’s Evan Rodrigues, ex- of Boston University, snapped the puck toward an empty net. Rask, who was in a paddle-down position, dropped his stick, dived to his right, and grabbed the puck with his blocker-hand palm.
Rask was already earning every dollar of his $7 million salary, helping the Bruins survive the first period tied at 1 despite a 17-4 shots disadvantage. The Bruins were playing so poorly, the TD Garden crowd let out a Bronx cheer when Brandon Carlo put their first puck on goal at 12:11 of the first.
“Superb,” Cassidy said of Rask. “He was our best player. We needed every save, obviously.”
Buffalo (10-9-3) isn’t a big team — “this isn’t like, the St. Louis Blues of last year’s playoffs,” Cassidy said — but they were much harder on the puck in the opening period. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, one of the few sizable Sabres (6 feet 4 inches, 220 pounds) got inside Carlo (6-5, 212) to pot a power-play rebound at 5:25. Until the Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Pastrnak line found their forechecking game, the Bruins were headed toward a brutal loss.
“Tonight was definitely our worst start of the year,” Cassidy said. “In pretty much every manner.”
Marchand tipped a Zdeno Chara drive to tie the score at 13:52, on Boston’s second shot of the night, after he and Pastrnak went hard in the Sabres’ zone. Marchand made it 2-1 on the power play, at 14:45 of the second, cleaning up a rebound.
“I have huge respect for him,” said a reflective Pastrnak. “The way he’s become the player he is today, it should be motivation for every young guy. He worked his way from the bottom line to the top line . . . It should be motivation for a lot of young kids.”
Pastrnak followed his linemate’s example. He smacked a power-play rebound for the Bruins’ third goal, 1:56 into the third.
To keep the score 3-1, Rask added to his career highlight reel.
Afterward, “save of the year” echoed from both dressing rooms, with Rodrigues himself conceding the honors. Marchand put it ahead of another incredible stop from this week, Marc-Andre Fleury’s diving glove save against Toronto, by noting that Fleury stopped a backhand that may have been going wide. Rodrigues’s shot was “a forehand, he ripped it,” Marchand said.
“And, Tuuks is my boy . . . That’s why he’s making the big bucks.”
It was the best stop Chris Wagner had seen . . .
“Since ever?” he said, after a pause.
Cassidy called it “a Dominik Hasek save,” referring to the acrobat in pads who once starred for the Sabres.
Rask said he hadn’t made one like that before. A positionally sound goalie, he isn’t usually scrambling like he was on that sequence. It fired him up to the point he didn’t want to watch the videoboard replay.
“I didn’t want to look,” he said. “I’m not used to making saves like that. It was tough to — I was fist-pumping, myself. I’m like, ‘That’s awesome.’ I’ve never made saves like that. It was tougher to shake off than a bad goal, you know? I just tried to regroup and focus on the next shot.”
As good as Rask was, he let in a stinker with 7:02 left. He didn’t track one off the stick of defenseman Brandon Montour, who made it 3-2 by beating him glove side, far side, from outside the left circle.
“Tell me it curved or something,” Rask said. “I just went to make the save and it went by me. Don’t know what happened. It didn’t end up costing us.”
The Bruins, 3-0-3 in their last six, host the Wild on Saturday. They are the only team without a regulation loss at home (8-0-4).
Part of Thursday’s surge, after the slow start, came from Wagner. The favorite son of Walpole and lifelong Bruins fan gave his approval to the vocalizing after Carlo made the shot count 14-1.
“I would expect nothing less,” he said.
He responded in his own way to the Bruins’ opening stumbles. Seeing Sabres winger Curtis Lazar hacking rookie defenseman Urho Vaakanainen in front of Rask, he released his frustration by throwing haymakers with Lazar. Rare in this day and age, but welcomed in this town.
“That’s what I always watched when I was little,” Wagner said. “The crowd appreciates it, too.”