Sabres 7, Bruins 6 (SO)

Sloppy Bruins present Sabres with a gift victory

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / January 2, 2011

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BUFFALO — The NHL’s certified Winter Classic was played some 200 miles south in Pittsburgh last night. But here at the edge of Lake Erie, on an uncharacteristically balmy winter’s night, the Bruins and Sabres hooked up in a classic of a different sort, a game full of loose play and lead changes that culminated in Buffalo’s 7-6 shootout victory.

It was, by all measures, a classic mess.

“A wild one for you,’’ said Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli, shaking his head as he walked by a scrum of reporters upon leaving the building.

“Yeah, fun to watch,’’ said one reporter.

“Uh,’’ said Chiarelli, who kept smiling nonetheless, “not really.’’

When the carnage had cleared, the Bruins, fresh off of a shootout loss in Atlanta on Thursday, had squandered leads of 3-1, 4-2, and 6-5. Buffalo’s final equalizer came with only 28 seconds remaining in regulation and Sabres goalie Ryan Miller pulled in favor of an extra attacker. Drew Stafford connected for the goal, his third of the night, and his second hat trick in as many games here this season against the Bruins, who are turning into the big winger’s official Black-and-Gold piñata.

“Not an easy game to watch from behind the bench,’’ said coach Claude Julien, who showed little confidence in starting goalie Tuukka Rask, hooking him after 20 minutes with the Bruins holding a 4-3 lead. “That 6 on 5 [prior to Stafford’s equalizer], we didn’t handle that well.’’

The good news for the Bruins was that four defensemen — Andrew Ference, Dennis Seidenberg, Zdeno Chara, and rookie Steven Kampfer — scored goals. The last time that happened? Never. Not even in the Bobby Orr-led Big Bad Bruins days did four blueliners put rubber over the line. But all of that was only so much fine print in the box score after the Sabres went a blistering 3 for 3 against Tim Thomas in the shootout.

With the sold-out crowd of 18,690 up and screaming, Stafford, Thomas Vanek, and Tyler Ennis all struck on their free attempts against Thomas. Stafford stuffed a forehander. Vanek motored down the middle and ripped in a blistering slapper from about 12 feet. The pint-sized Ennis, who could wear a pair of Chara shin guards as full body armor, faked Thomas to the floor before snapping a doorstep forehander under the crossbar.

“I wish maybe I’d relaxed, freewheeled it a little more in the shootout,’’ said Thomas, who gave up two goals in the second period, then the Stafford strike in the last minute.

At the other end, Miller (34 saves) yielded shootout goals in lockstep with Thomas, first beaten by Michael Ryder’s forehander and then Tyler Seguin’s backhand lift at the left post. Chara followed Ennis and missed with a wrister after faking a Vanek-like slapper. Game over.

All in all, the fan entertainment aside, it was a shapeless night for the teams, especially for two coaches (Lindy Ruff and Julien) who never saw a 1-0 game they didn’t like. On the first day of the new year, 36 skaters came together and played 65-plus minutes of shinny.

“A frustrating game,’’ said Julien. “You didn’t feel you had a grip on the game. It was a wild type of game, one you hope you can pull out a couple of points and walk away. But that didn’t happen.’’

Ference, Seidenberg, Brad Marchand (a tip of Johnny Boychuk’s blaster) and Chara (shorthanded) all scored in the first, a period in which the Bruins looked as if they would run away with it. But Jason Pominville, Vanek, and Stafford also scored in the first, including Stafford’s jam shot at the right post with 41 seconds to go before the break. It turned out to be the last shot Rask faced because Julien called on Thomas to start the second.

“I am not going to say yes or no,’’ said Rask, asked if he was surprised to be hooked after 20 minutes.

Julien a number of times stated that he hooked Rask, who had backed up Thomas for the previous seven games, because he felt “It was our best chance to win.’’ He also said he wasn’t about to point fingers at the Finnish netminder. But it’s clear Julien has lost confidence in last year’s starter and it could be some time before Rask gets another start.

“We’ll have Bob Essensa work with him,’’ said Julien, referring to the Boston goalie coach. “We need him. We can’t have just one goalie.’’

The loss also pushed to the background some fine third-period work by rookies Seguin and Kampfer. Seguin snapped in the 5-5 equalizer on a dandy one-timer at 3:08 of the third and only four minutes later delivered a perfect feed into the slot for a rushing Kampfer to lift home the 6-5 lead. Those are the kinds of flashes that should earn the freshmen more playing time.

Those answers and more tomorrow in Toronto when the Bruins take on the Leafs. It’s a new year and one classic is officially in the books.

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