BOSTON -- The Bruins expected Wednesday night’s return to TD Garden to be an emotional, cathartic experience for everyone, a necessary step in the healing process.
The ending may not have been as scripted, as the Bruins suffered a 3-2 shootout loss to the Sabres. But everything else about the night hit all the right notes, bringing the city -- at least the sporting part of it -- together in a feeling of togetherness and Boston Pride.
There wasn’t a dry eye among the 18,000-plus in attendance when the “Boston Strong” highlights package played on the video board before the game, followed by the crowd singing the National Anthem a capella after Rene Rancourt got them started.
Many of the players were fighting their own emotions to keep from crying on the ice during the first few shifts of the game.
“Obviously, emotions were pretty high,” said Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference. “We all knew tonight was more than just another game. It meant a lot to people as another step [toward recovery], and we’re just on the ice trying to have some remembrance from the last couple of days and just move on as well to getting back to business in the city. It was tough. It was really tough. I think in the first shift everybody was choked up.
“I can’t remember being that emotional on the ice except for the last few seconds before we won the Cup. I think it’s about equal as far as emotions. I was just trying to keep my eyes dry for those first couple of shifts.”
During the game, instead of chanting the usual “Let’s Go Bruins,” the fan base burst into spontaneous chants of “We Are Boston” and “Let’s Go Boston,” and the Bruins players could feel the deep-rooted emotions behind the chants.
“With the amount of people that came out and the way they treated this game, it was really special,” said Brad Marchand, who, along with Ference, Patrice Bergeron, Chris Kelly and Daniel Paille, was among the most effective players for the Black and Gold in such an important single game. “It was really emotional at the start. With how intense [the fans] were and how much emotion they were bringing us, we definitely played a lot better.
“[The opening ceremony] was incredible. To see how everyone was reacting and watching that video was obviously very emotional for everyone. You really see why Boston is such a special city. How everyone has come together and really united through all this . . . tonight was another example of it. You’re around thousands of people you don’t know, but it’s like we’re all one. It was special tonight and very emotional.”
The poignant and meaningful moments continued all night. During one TV timeout, the Bruins recognized anyone in the crowd who ran the Marathon. The team also invited 80 first responders to be their guests, including Boston police and fire department officials.
The game ended disappointingly for the B’s, when they allowed the tying goal in the third period with less than 30 seconds to go after Ference had taken a delay of game penalty and then came up short in the shootout session. Though they clinched a playoff spot by getting one point, some players felt like they had let the fans down by not following through with a win.
“We wanted to go out there and win that hockey game. I’m disappointed that we didn’t," said Kelly. "We wanted to give the city something to be happy about.
"We went out and battled hard, I’m not taking that away from the guys. But we really wanted to get the two points and hopefully put a smile on someone’s face. So I’m pretty upset that we didn’t.”
Still, the night ended on a high note with a stirring stick salute from both the Bruins and Sabres players to the fans at center ice when it was all over -- a move organized by Ference, Zdeno Chara and Buffalo's Thomas Vanek before the game.
It was an amazing moment, perhaps moreso because the Bruins and Sabres have been the bitterest of rivals over the last couple of seasons, beginning when Milan Lucic barreled into Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller last year. But all that took a backseat Wednesday night.
Win, lose or draw, the Bruins, their fans and Bostonians everywhere were “Boston Strong”. And will be forever more.