By 5:09 of the second period last night at TD Banknorth Garden, Sidney Crosby had engaged in his first NHL fight, thus earning his first Gordie Howe hat trick.
Andrew Ference was only too willing to take responsibility for all three components.
"I'm glad I could help him out with the assist, goal, and the fight," said Ference with a smile.
In the first period, before Tim Thomas had a chance to get his legs settled in his first start since Dec. 5, Crosby and friends had scorched the back of the net three times, with the Pittsburgh captain recording a goal and two assists - all with Ference on the ice.
"We sure dug ourselves an awful hole in the first," said Ference. "In the first, I just played awful."
But in the second period, when Crosby raced into the corner and whacked Ference on the head, the defenseman did what the Bruins finally decided to do in the second half of the game.
Ference returned a shot to Crosby's head, and moments later, the 20-year-old center dropped his gloves, ripped off the defenseman's helmet, and squared off for the first time as an NHLer. Crosby held his own, opening a cut on Ference's forehead when he removed his helmet.
Perhaps it was coincidence, but later in the second period, the Bruins kicked off their comeback, scoring the first of four unanswered goals, on their way to wiping out a 4-0 Pittsburgh advantage and sending the game to a shootout. Forward Erik Christensen and defenseman Kris Letang beat Thomas, while former University of New Hampshire netminder Ty Conklin stuffed Phil Kessel and Marco Sturm to give Pittsburgh a 5-4 shootout victory.
But the Bruins, who've made their name on one-goal decisions and neutral-zone clogs, gained a point and provided 15,304 fans with undoubtedly the most edge-of-the-seat excitement - not many were ducking out for refreshments in the game's second half - of the 2007-08 season. The Bruins remain the only team in the NHL not to have lost consecutive games in regulation.
"It was a very, very enjoyable game and they'll talk about it for a while," said Thomas (25 saves). "But if we win that shootout, they talk about it for a long time."
For the first 30 minutes, it was a game that was headed toward the infamy category. The quick-strike Penguins blew the Bruins' doors off in the first period, taking advantage of a string of defensive-zone cough-ups - the No. 1 line of P.J. Axelsson, Marc Savard, and Glen Murray, along with Ference, had minus-3 ratings after the first period - to take a 3-0 lead.
Evgeni Malkin scored on Pittsburgh's first shot just 55 seconds into the game. Crosby deflected a shot past Thomas to make it 2-0. And Malkin netted his second at 11:53.
"We were headed toward embarrassment there for a while," said Bruins coach Claude Julien.
Zdeno Chara took it upon himself to turn things around, challenging tough guy Georges Laraque - Thomas termed the 6-foot-3-inch, 245-pound Laraque the league's No. 1 heavyweight - to a fight at 12:30. After circling each other for an extended period, Chara threw the first punch, then tackled Laraque. Both were called for delay of game penalties despite dropping the gloves.
Two minutes later, as they stepped out of their respective boxes, Chara and Laraque shed their gloves again. This time, Laraque connected with a left hand and brought Chara to the ice.
In total, Julien lost Chara, his shutdown answer to Crosby and Malkin, for seven minutes. But it was a trade-off the coach was satisfied to take.
"Not taking anything away from anybody, but we had a lot more to lose in that situation," said Julien. "Georges is there for that reason. He gets limited ice time, where Z plays 30 minutes a game. But having said that, Z did the right thing to get our team going."
After Christensen made it 4-0 in the second period, Boston kicked off its comeback. During a power play, Ference flung a slow-moving shot from the point that was tipped by Sturm at 16:04. Then at 17:38, with Glen Metropolit serving a hooking penalty, the Bruins scored their second shorthanded goal of the season after Jeremy Reich won an offensive-zone draw and got the puck to Axelsson, who beat Conklin.
At 13:14 of the third period, Ference recorded his second assist when Petteri Nokelainen, who won the puck earlier along the boards, crashed the net and jammed home a rebound of the defenseman's shot.
Then with 2:55 remaining in regulation, Dennis Wideman tied the game with a power-play goal. At the end of regulation, the home crowd acknowledged the comeback with a standing ovation.
"They had reason to boo us in the first," said Aaron Ward. "But as a fan, it's good to see your team being resilient. We didn't bury our heads in the sand, ride it out, and wait for the next game. We took it upon ourselves in the locker room to right the ship."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.