If it takes noontime starts to bring out the best in NHL entertainment here in the Hub of Hockey, then the Bruins will have to bump up the budget for "miscellaneous expenses" this summer and wine-and-dine the NHL schedule-maker. Forty-one home games, all noon starts, maybe even a little bit earlier if everyone is seated.
The finishing touch yesterday was Mike Knuble's game-winner, with only 3.9 seconds remaining in overtime, handing the Bruins a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres before a Causeway crowd of 16,198. Knuble finished off a two-on-one rush, potting an eye-of-the-needle pass from newcomer Michael Nylander, only a few flashes of the shutter frame after Dan McGillis made the defensive play of the day when he broke up a two-on-one Sabres rush at the other end.
It doesn't get much more dramatic these days than having the game end on eye-for-an-eye two-on-ones. After deftly breaking up a pass by Maxim Afinogenov, McGillis smacked the puck away from Miro Satan at one end, leading to the feed to Nylander, and Knuble rammed home his 21st of the season from short range after some stickhandling wizardry by Nylander.
"You hear, what, 18,000 people screaming," said Knuble, replaying the final moments, "and they're all yelling, `Shoot!' Of course, you just hear the crowd going, "Ooooooooo.' And [Nylander] must have had five or six options going through his head -- `Do I keep it? Do I pass it?' -- and then to make that perfect pass to me the way he did, that's gifted."
The victory, their 35th this season, brought the Bruins to 91 points and left them parked in first place in the Northeast Division. It also was their 28th OT this season (in 72 games) tying the league record. They have 10 games remaining in the regular season, and after playing into OT in seven of their last 11, they are virtually certain to end 2003-04 as the NHL's titans of OT. They are 7-7-14 in the extra sessions.
Also high on the entertainment meter yesterday, and nearly as rare as matching two-on-ones, was the 185-foot bank shot that Nick Boynton scored with early in the second period, cutting Buffalo's lead in half, 2-1. It was not the best of starts for the Bruins -- a common and concerning ailment -- and when Boynton's shorthander clanged off the glass and went straight into the Buffalo net, it was as if the fog lifted from the Boston attack.
"It was a lucky break for us," noted Bruins winger Glen Murray, who pounded in the tying goal that enabled the game to go into OT. "Until [Boynton's goal], they were pretty much outplaying us. I think then the whole bench was like, `Wow!' It changed the game, no question."
Up to that point, the Sabres, clinging to the hope of slipping ahead of the Islanders for the final playoff spot in the East, had carried the offense. Daniel Briere potted the 1-0 lead at 5:57 of the first after turning defenseman Jiri Slegr into a miniature windmill at the blue line. Just less than six minutes later, the two sides skating four-on-four, Jay McKee picked up a velvety drop pass from Afinogenov in the slot, carried deep down the left side, and snapped a wrister under the crossbar, short side, for the 2-0 lead.
"It's not going to always happen that we can come back," said Brian Rolston, who assisted on the Boynton goal. "No question, we have to come out with better starts. We can't battle back like that all the time."
Midway through the third period, the Sabres were clinging to the 2-1 lead until captain Joe Thornton plucked a Sabre pass off the rear boards, stepped out front, and fed one of his patented dishes into the slot for Murray. Parked just left of the slot, Murray hammered home the half-slapper for his 29th of the season. When the two supersized forwards work that play, it's as if Murray is yelling, "pull!" and Thornton is tripping the lever on their skeet trap. Click. Fire. Another goalie (this time Martin Biron) shattered to pieces.
As the seconds wound down in OT, it appeared the Sabres had the winner when Afinogenov and Briere, with a trailing Satan, flew in on their two-on-one sortie. They are Buffalo's most dangerous strikers. Afinogenov, wide on left wing with the puck dancing on his blade, opted to pass but the puck never made it to Briere. McGillis swept it toward the left wing boards, where Satan was headed.
"Right there, that's when I decided to go for the puck," said McGillis, a more confident contributor the last few weeks. "I was fortunate to get it with my stick, and . . ."
The rest was frozen on the clock, with 3.9 seconds left to the afternoon. That's after noon, Mr. Schedule-Maker, wink-wink, nudge-nudge. And by the way, have you experienced one of our delightful Duck Tours, or the Swan Boats, maybe a stroll down Newbury Street . . .?