Some of the buzz, once so familiar and intoxicating on Causeway Street, continued to build last night at the TD Banknorth Garden, even without the Dallas Stars on the Saturday night playbill in the dual roles of villain and victim.
Instead, before a full house of 17,565 at the Vault, the Bruins overcame a first-period hiccup and chugged along to a convincing 3-1 triumph over the Sabres for their third straight win. It was also their sixth win in seven outings, pushing the Bruins among the leaders of the pack in the Eastern Conference (tied with the Sabres atop the Northeast Division), and perhaps more important, banking a couple of valuable insurance points for when spring rolls around with playoff seeds to be secured.
"Yeah, there's a smile on everyone's faces these days," said Marc Savard, who ripped home the third goal when he walked into a Phil Kessel rebound and fired a net-seeking one-timer into a wide-open left side. "But at the same time, we're trying to stay on an even keel."
The Bruins scored five times the previous Saturday with Dallas in town, in the season's most rough-and-tumble 60 minutes. They piled another five spot Thursday when the Maple Leafs came to Causeway. Dennis Wideman, Chuck Kobasew, and Savard provided the pop against the Sabres, and the goal haul could have been higher if not for the sharp work of Ryan Miller (37 saves, 16 of them in the final period) in the Sabres' net.
In his season-plus here in the Hub of Hockey, coach Claude Julien acknowledged that in the past three games the Bruins have executed their best since his arrival.
"I think so, and I hope so," he said, after watching his squad click for 13 goals in three games. "When you try to do something with a team, you hope it progresses. I think the guys are understanding it more and more. Last year was about establishing an identity and setting a goal of getting into the playoffs. And to get better this year, you have to be more consistent and dominant in all areas."
The Sabres connected for the night's first goal at 10:16 of the first period, center Tim Connolly popping in a short-range wrister. He had traded passes with linemate Jason Pominville, who hurriedly joined the rush after being pasted into the end boards by one of Milan Lucic's many heavy hits. Connolly sniped one high into the net from the right circle, with Manny Fernandez too far back in the net to be able to cut down the shot.
"I thought it was a sluggish start," said Julien. "Our passes weren't crisp. It seemed like we struggled in our own end . . . our defensemen weren't crisp with their passes."
The Bruins needed another seven-plus minutes before Wideman, a Sabres draft pick, drilled home the equalizer off a one-timer from just inside the blue line. Stephane Yelle, the fourth-line center, set it up with help from Kobasew, playing in his first game in a month after breaking a leg in Colorado Oct. 9. Yelle dished up a pass from the right half-wall, and Wideman's shot deflected off Jaroslav Spacek's stick shaft and beat Miller on the glove side.
For the most part, the Bruins took the game over in the second period, when they scored twice. The Sabres showed obvious wear after their 5-4 overtime loss to Atlanta Friday night in Buffalo. The combination of fatigue and Lucic's flattening checks proved a difficult brew.
"Our guys shook out the cobwebs," said Shawn Thornton, "and I think we took it over in the second half of the first period."
Kobasew broke the Bruins out to the lead only 2:47 into the middle period when he rushed up the right side with a Thornton relay and nailed in a long-range wrister, a shot that slightly changed directions again on Miller, this time nicking off Teppo Numminen's left skate boot.
"I got lucky on that one," said Kobasew. "It was a wide 2 on 1, and I just wanted to get the shot off, and it hit a skate or a shinguard."
His first game back and Kobasew had a goal and an assist skating on the hard-working No. 4 line (with Petteri Nokelainen taking a night off). The points were piling up as if Kobasew were back wearing maroon-and-gold on Chestnut Hill.
Only 7:59 into the second, both sides at full strength, the Bruins opened up some daylight when Savard hammered in his sixth goal of the season, sniping in a 25-footer from the left side after Kessel ripped a shot on Miller from the opposite wing. Miller, diving frantically to his right, couldn't close off the gaping open space and the quick-thinking Savard unloaded a one-timer for his sixth goal.
The night ended with the familiar "Love that Dirty Water" booming through the Garden, and cheers rising to the rafters. It's early, but the momentum and emotion are building.