For the first time, a game went the way the experts predicted this entire playoff series would go, which might not be a good omen for the Boston Bruins.
The Buffalo Sabres avoided elimination last night with a determined effort that saw them dominate the Bruins in a 4-1 win. This cut the Bruins' lead in the best-of-seven series to 3-2 with Game 6 in Boston on Monday.
Before the opening-round series started, not many observers thought the Sabres, who finished third in the NHL's Eastern Conference in the regular season, would have much trouble with the sixth-place Bruins, who struggled through much of the second half of the season.
But as the series moved along, it was the Sabres' offence that struggled with the Bruins' excellent defensive game. However, that changed last night as the Sabres came out hard from the opening faceoff, kept the pressure on for 40 minutes and then let goaltender Ryan Miller take over in the third. Johnny Boychuk broke Miller's bid for a shutout with a goal late in the third period.
"You're never told which order you have to win in," said Miller, who had lots of help from his teammates in blocking 20 Bruin shots in the third period. "I don't think we had our best games two through four. Tonight, we had our best game.
"Now [the Bruins]have seen our best game. They're going to have to react to our best game."
By the end of the second period, after the Sabres fore-checked the Bruins into disarray to take a 3-0 lead, the words of Claude Julien a few hours earlier stood out. After the morning skate, the Bruins' head coach was asked about his team's dedication to back-checking.
"Yeah, that's been part of our makeup the whole year," Julien said. "You have to back-check hard.
"There's a four-man attack now on almost every team. If you don't have good back-checking, you have outnumbered situations. Our guys buy into it."
Until last night, that is. The Sabres came at the Bruins in waves almost from the opening faceoff, playing with a determination they had not shown since the first game of the series.
For the first time, the Sabres' best forwards, who were called out by head coach Lindy Ruff on Thursday, put in a solid effort. Derek Roy and Tim Connolly, the top two centres, were a presence, as were Jason Pominville and Mike Grier.
Grier was outstanding, particularly in the third period when the Bruins desperately tried to come back. He led the shot-blocking efforts, to the extent of taking a slapshot off his head that resulted in a quick few stitches to his ear.
"He's like an assistant coach," Ruff said of Grier. "He knows what it takes to win. What an inspiration."
Ruff could take a bow in the transformation as well, aside from challenging his top six forwards. In the double-overtime loss in Boston on Thursday in Game 4, Ruff shuffled his lines because of his unhappiness with the play of his "skill guys."
"We're trying to get good balance, realizing that in the previous game we felt what were our best offensive lines didn't give us anything," Ruff said. "The bigger guys were getting inside and getting more done. We tried to get a little size on every line."
To that end, Grier was moved beside Connolly and right winger Tyler Ennis, who is a Smurf but plays like a Tasmanian devil, was put on Roy's line. The tinkering continued yesterday morning when another Smurf, 5-foot-6 Nathan Gerbe, was called up from the Sabres' farm team and put on the fourth line with Adam Mair and banger Cody McCormick.
With the Sabres' third and fourth lines continuing their rambunctious play, the improvement in the top two lines spelled doom for the Bruins last night. Ruff said he was playing "a hunch" by pulling the unproductive Raffi Torres from the lineup in favour of Gerbe and that, too paid off.
Gerbe set up the Sabres' first goal, a wraparound by Mair at 1:54. This jacked up the sellout crowd at HSBC Arena, which had seemed a little nervous before the opening faceoff, and the Sabres were off and running.
Ennis spent the night throwing all of his 5-foot-9, 163-pound frame at the Bruins, including their 6-foot-9 star defenceman, Zdeno Chara.
"He has a hell of a lot of fun playing, I'll tell you that," Ruff said. "A guy his size trying to run over guys twice his size, that puts a smile on a coach's face.
Jason Pominville had the good timing to score near the end of the first period to further deflate the Bruins and Buffalo took a 2-0 lead into the second period.
There was more heat in the second period from the Sabres' fore-checkers. Midway through the period, Grier scored on a feed from Gaustad to make it 3-0 and it was obvious this lead was not going to be coughed up in the third period as in Games 2 and 4. Ennis finished off the scoring late in the third with an empty-net goal.
The game ended on a nasty note, as Chara took exception to the way a couple of Sabres forwards handled him. This resulted in a fierce scrum with several players in a flailing pile on the ice before it was sorted out.
Julien, who has not been happy with the referees' work in the series, wasn't willing to admit this was his players' serving notice to the Sabres that the next game will be even more physical than that one.
"It depends how you want to look at it," he said. "If you look at the way the series has gone, we will be blamed for starting it.
"I saw Chara get slashed from behind on the back of the leg. That's our fault, I'm sure."
Thanks to the game's outcome, Ruff saw some humour in the closing note.
"I liked the fact we had one guy around [Chara's]knees, one guy around his waist and one guy around his neck," Ruff said. "And the big man went down."
Chara received an instigator penalty for his part in the scrum. Since that came in the last five minutes of the game it carries an automatic one-game suspension pending a review. This would have been a severe blow to the Bruins but Chara escaped a suspension after the review by Colin Campbell, the NHL's director of hockey operations.
Since Chara was reacting to a slash by Gaustad, the instigator penalty was rescinded and with it the suspension.