Bad start. Mediocre middle. Strong finish.
That about summed up the Bruins' effort last night against Northeast Division rival Buffalo as they dropped a 3-2 decision at the FleetCenter. It ended the Bruins' modest winning streak at two games and stopped the Sabres' losing streak at three.
After two emotionally and physically draining contests against another New York team -- the Rangers -- that produced back-to-back victories earlier in the week, the Bruins lacked that same energy and passion last night.
It didn't help that they were without their captain and best player -- Joe Thornton -- who was in the hospital recovering from surgery to stabilize his fractured right cheekbone and missed his second straight game.
"I think our team has played extremely well, consistently well, for a period of time," said coach Mike Sullivan. "Tonight wasn't one of our best efforts, but it certainly wasn't one of our worst, either."
True, but the Bruins came out woefully flat in the opening 20 minutes, managing just five shots against the desperate Sabres, who came into the night in 13th place in the conference. Boston looked like a team playing its third game in four days, squandering three power-play chances in the opening frame -- all the man-advantage opportunities the club would have.
The Sabres took a 1-0 lead at 11:35 on a tally by defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick. Ted Donato had gone into the right circle to take a faceoff against Chris Drury but was kicked out, forcing Mike Knuble to take the draw. Knuble lost the faceoff and Drury fed it back to the right point to Fitzpatrick, who teed up a slapper that beat goalie Andrew Raycroft to the stick side. It was Fitzpatrick's third goal of the season.
Veteran Sean O'Donnell, who has been among Boston's most consistent blue liners this season, tried to light a fire under his team when he squared off with tough left wing Eric Boulton at 12:55 of the second period, but the Bruins stayed flat, generating just seven shots in the period.
The Bruins turned the tables on the visitors in the third, coming out very strong and knocking the Sabres back on their heels.
At 8:11, with Boston outshooting Buffalo by a 7-0 margin, Glen Murray cashed in on shot No. 8 to pull the Bruins even at 1-1. P.J. Axelsson dished a pass to Murray high in the slot and his low wrist shot beat Martin Biron through the pads for his 14th of the season.
The go-ahead goal came at 13:40 of the third on Buffalo's first shot of the period. Right wing Miroslav Satan took a centering pass and snapped a shot past the glove of Raycroft for his 16th goal of the season.
Late in the period, with defenseman Dan McGillis off for hooking Satan at 18:06, which the Bruins loudly protested was not a penalty, Satan made it a two-goal lead with an empty-net goal with 1:10 left.
"It was inopportune for us," said Sullivan of the infraction. "We were trying to get some momentum to get the goal back and that really sets you back."
It turned out the Sabres would need it. With 5.5 seconds left, Knuble got the Bruins close with his 14th of the season.
"They really didn't give us much skating room," said Raycroft, who had 26 saves and kept the Bruins in it in the early going. "We came out hard in the third but it just wasn't enough."
Defenseman Nick Boynton said it was a frustrating game. "They just seemed to be everywhere," he said. "Any time I shot a puck, it hit one of their sticks. We couldn't get anything to the net and it seemed to go that way with everybody. They played really well, but that's the way it goes sometimes."