Next stop: Montreal.
The Bruins put the regular season in the past last night, limping away from a 3-0 sleeper hold slapped on by the Sabres before 17,565 at TD Banknorth Garden, and have the following staring them down: a Cup-poised, bleu, blanc, et rouge phenomenon, the pride of an entire hockey-mad province, that's played eight swagger-filled games against the Bruins this season and not lost one.
But like last night's dud against Buffalo, the Bruins are treating those games like they're irrelevant history.
"Fabulous. That's great," Aaron Ward said of the first-round showdown against the hated Habs. "It's another challenge presented to this team. We haven't achieved the success to our liking against this team in the regular season. But it's time to turn over a new leaf and find some success."
Last night, playing for the second time in two days after clinching a playoff berth in Ottawa Friday, the Bruins ran out of gas against the Sabres to complete the regular season with a 41-29-5-7 record for 94 points.
"You have to realize that our team has been battling for their lives for the last month," said coach Claude Julien. "We clinched a playoff spot [Friday] night. Part of it is a natural thing for the guys to take a deep breath and relish the fact that they accomplished their goal. Maybe we didn't have our total focus tonight. But that's the way you have to look at it. When you take a step back and you look at the whole thing, you know there's reasons behind it."
The first-round scenario unfolded because of Boston's loss, coupled with Montreal's 3-1 victory over Toronto, which put the Canadiens in first place in the Eastern Conference with 104 points. Pittsburgh plays Philadelphia today, and if the Penguins win, they will claim the No. 1 seed, drop Montreal into second, and leave Philadelphia in eighth place. If the Flyers win, they would vault over the Bruins and Ottawa into sixth place and leave Boston in eighth to face off against No. 1 Montreal.
"Everybody seems to want to have a look at the global outlook, I guess, at the fact that it's 11 in a row now that we haven't beaten them," Julien said. "That's the number that keeps coming up to everybody. The number that comes up to me is the last two games that we played them [a 4-2 loss at home and a 3-2 shootout setback at Bell Centre]."
The 4-2 loss March 20 was Boston's last regulation setback until last night. Before last night, the Bruins had earned at least a point in seven straight games, a run that propelled them into the postseason.
"Every game has been so important," said Tim Thomas. "It's almost like every game has been a must-win. It's been playoff hockey for a while now. I think that will help us to hopefully be battle-tested. We've passed every test so far."
The Bruins lost Marc Savard in the 3-2 shootout loss to the Canadiens March 22, courtesy of a crack in the back by penalty killer Steve Begin. But while their No. 1 center became unavailable, the Bruins discovered something that night about themselves.
That they could give Montreal a game.
"If you look at the statistics, it didn't go too well for us against them," Milan Lucic said. "But we can't look at that too much. That's the season and we know the playoffs is a different game. We have to make sure we're ready to play. Obviously, there's going to be a lot of energy in that building. For a couple of us, it's our first time in the playoffs, so we might be a little bit nervous, but I don't think we need to be nervous. I think we're kind of the underdog going into that series, so we've just got to go out there and play hard.
"Obviously, they're a good team. We've got to respect the fact that they're a good team. I think for us, we just have to make sure we get mentally prepared for them. From the last time playing them, we know what we have to do if we want to win."
That game - highlights included a tying goal by Petteri Nokelainen, a 29-save performance by Thomas, and a P.J. Axelsson vs. Maxim Lapierre throwdown - should be the game the Bruins have on their minds instead of last night's disappointment. Buffalo forward Thomas Vanek scored a pair of power-play goals in the second period, then added an empty-netter with 43 seconds remaining to complete his hat trick.
While the Sabres sent 27 shots on Thomas, the Bruins could only manage to put 17 pucks on little-used goalie Jocelyn Thibault.
"It's too bad," said Zdeno Chara. "We're better than we showed, that's for sure. But what's done is done. We have to get ready for the playoffs."