BUFFALO - Just when it looked like maybe the Bruins could never lose again, they lost again, for the first time in about a month (in regulation time), but only by a goal.
"Not bad," said coach Claude Julien, following his squad's 3-2 loss last night at the hands of the struggling Sabres. "But we had a lot of guys who were just OK."
Therein lies the good news for the Bruins in 2008-09. When they are "just OK," which is about all they have been now for years, they aren't happy about it. "Just OK" has a loser's ring to it these days in the Hub of Hockey. They were slow to get into their "A" game against the Sabres, and by the time they began to pick up their playmaking, their hitting, and their goaltending, they were chasing a 3-1 Buffalo lead and an expiring clock.
Down by a pair of goals, and playing just OK? Not good enough. Not by a long shot (like, say, the one Jochen Hecht nailed by Tim Thomas, while shorthanded, for that 3-1 lead in the second period).
"These guys were pretty desperate," said Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward, noting the Sabres snapped a five-game losing streak - a sharp contrast to their 6-0-2 start this season. "We shouldn't have been surprised by their energy, but . . . hey, lesson learned. We should have played the whole game the way we played for part of the second and most of the third. But we showed we can answer adversity."
The loss was only Boston's second over the last 15 games (other than a shootout loss to the Rangers). They are 12-2-1 over the last month and remain among the game's elite, with 60 games remaining on the regular-season schedule.
The Bruins could play .500 the rest of the way and finish with 92 points, which, incredibly, would leave them with 2 points fewer than they recorded last season. All of which underscores the length of the schedule, as well as the fact that good starts, even as great as the Bruins have experienced, guarantee nothing. It's a long haul, and "just OK" is the domain of the seven also-rans in the conference each season.
With the Bruins struggling to find their speed and physical commitment, the Sabres popped in a pair, both by the pesky Derek Roy, in the first period. The first came off a David Krejci mistake near his net, turning right into Roy as Krejci attempted to stickhandle away with a rebound. Roy plucked it, then potted it.
Next, with 1:23 to go in the first, Roy snapped in another from low in the right faceoff circle, the shot glancing off Thomas's left pad and popping in the short side. Thomas came in with an 1.80 goals-against mark. In less than 19 minutes, Roy had more than what the rest of the league could average against Thomas in full games this season.
Thomas said he never saw the first one. He also said he only got a partial view at the second. The third goal, the long left-wing slapper by Hecht only 10 seconds after the Bruins went on a power play, was one of the best views Thomas had of a puck all night. No screen. No deflection.
"And I think I kind of helped it into the net," said a chagrined Thomas. "I saw it, thought it was going wide . . . then I wasn't sure. I think it might have gone wide, but I got just a piece of it with my glove . . ."
And it was in the net. Sabres, 3-1, and the hole was just too deep.
Rookie Matt Hunwick connected for Boston's first goal, his third in five games, briefly cutting the lead to 2-1 in the second before the Hecht strike. Phil Kessel brought the Bruins within one again, 3-2, with 10:35 remaining in the third, with a pretty tuck play at the left post.
From that point on, though, the Sabres outshot the Bruins, 4-2, and survived a final minute that had Thomas out of the net and the Bruins attacking with a half-dozen skaters.
"When you are the top dog, teams are gunning for you," said Julien.
Such will be the theme of the next four-plus months. Julien, in concert with Peter Chiarelli's front office crew, has shaped a decent hockey team. But 22 games into the interminable regular-season trek, everyone knows it. It is, as Julien repeats as mantra, a humbling sport.
Their effort here for the first 30 minutes or more was both humble and mediocre, easy to dismiss when a team is in the midst of a 12-2-1 roll. But more important to place in context, and hope it doesn't come up again like so much holiday heartburn.