Yesterday before 15,266 fans at TD Banknorth Garden, despite the arrival of the Rangers and high-priced gunners Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan, Scott Gomez, and Chris Drury, the man with the lowest goals-against average and highest save percentage in the league played the role of door opener on the Boston bench.
Instead of starting Tim Thomas against high-powered New York, Boston coach Claude Julien opted for Manny Fernandez - for good reason. Fernandez had struggled in his first two starts, entering yesterday with a 1-1-0 record, 5.00 GAA, and a .796 save percentage, not the numbers the Bruins expected from the ex-Wild netminder.
So by playing him against the Rangers, Julien aimed to kick-start Fernandez.
The goaltender responded.
Fernandez, making his home debut as a Bruin, stopped every puck that came his way in the Bruins' 1-0 shootout victory - 25 shots in regulation, one in overtime, and two in the shootout against Shanahan and Jagr (Drury shot wide). It was the first shutout for Fernandez - and the Bruins - this season and the puckstopper's 14th of his career. The Bruins (5-2-0) earned their first win over the Rangers since March 4, 2004.
"It's a good pat on the back," Fernandez said. "I totally acknowledge that the team played really well defensively in front of me. They've been really strong for us since the beginning of the year."
While Fernandez was doing what was asked of him, Phil Kessel did his usual thing: score the winning goal in the shootout, stepping into the No. 3 hole and propelling a shot over the glove of Henrik Lundqvist.
"He's our little closer," said Marc Savard.
For Fernandez, 2007-08 hadn't started the way he wanted. He gave up four goals - two of them probably stoppable - to Dallas. Then, playing behind a leaky defense, Fernandez allowed a six-spot to Los Angeles.
Yesterday, Fernandez moved smoothly in his crease, using his athleticism to make the sharp saves when he had to. Unlike in the 8-6 win over the Kings, his teammates cleared shooting lanes and swept aside the few rebounds he gave up - which, most importantly, he didn't put into danger areas.
In the first period, Fernandez made a front-of-the-crease stop on Jagr. In the second period, Fernandez played his best, making his sharpest save when Shanahan sprinted past Zdeno Chara for a shorthanded bid. Shanahan moved to his backhand, but Fernandez tracked the play and stuffed the sniper's shot.
Later in the period, forward Petr Prucha slipped behind the defense for a close-range shot that Fernandez kicked out.
"Tonight, his performance was good for a lot of different reasons," Julien said. "First of all, for him, personally. We know that he's capable of that kind of game. It's certainly good for his confidence. It's good for the team because of the confidence the team now has. It doesn't matter who you put in net right now. They are both very good."
Fernandez kept his A game in the shootout. Performing his trademark move - two taps of his glove with his stick before settling in for the shot - Fernandez first stopped Shanahan with his right pad, then forced Drury to shoot wide with a forehand.
Jagr, New York's No. 3 shooter, advanced slowly with the puck, trying to wait out Fernandez. The puck appeared to roll on Jagr at the last moment, and Fernandez covered the shot, setting up Kessel (Patrice Bergeron and Marco Sturm were unsuccessful on their attempts) to do what he does best.
On the bench, Savard and Kessel were chatting during the shootout. Savard said he liked Kessel's backhand move against Washington goalie Olaf Kolzig last season. But when Kessel broke toward the net yesterday, he busted out the forehand, aiming over Lundqvist's glove.
It's a spot Savard looked for in the first period, when he appeared to have a wide-open net during a Boston power play. But Lundqvist made a tremendous glove save at 14:47, leaving the centerman flat on his back on the ice, looking up at the ceiling in disbelief.
"Unbelievable save," said Savard. "I got all of it, too. Just got his glove back there and I tried to bury it. I just got robbed. Got robbed point-blank."
Lundqvist didn't have the same luck against Kessel, who is now 5 for 8 in the shootout, with all five strikes closing out games.
"Phil is a gifted hockey player when it comes to those kinds of things," Julien said. "So it was nice to see him score that goal."