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Wagner, Fourth Line Lead Bruins

Forward scores one day after grandfather's death as Boston beats Buffalo

by Eric Russo @NHLBruins /

BOSTON - Chris Wagner remembered back to the countless drives to the rink and the endless support, from his youth hockey days on the South Shore all the way up to his Winter Classic appearance on New Year's Day.

Whether it was from the stands or from a TV thousands of miles away, his grandfather was always watching.

So when Wagner's goal just 20 seconds into Saturday night's game with Buffalo was wiped off the board for goalie interference, the Walpole native had a pretty good idea of what his grandfather's reaction would be.

"He's probably laughing after that first goal was disallowed," Wagner said with a smile as he remembered his late grandad, Jim Phelan of Norwood, who passed away on Friday morning.

Wagner was, no doubt, playing with some added purpose and plenty of emotion, thus it was no surprise when the 27-year-old popped one in for real just under 10 minutes later to open the scoring in Boston's 2-1 victory over the Sabres at TD Garden.

"This was a special game for me. Maybe he was watching out for me, making the puck follow me around. Who knows? He would drive me around when my parents couldn't, went to all my games, watched all these games even up until the Winter Classic the other day, so it means a lot," said Wagner, who pointed skyward during both celebrations in tribute of his maternal grandfather.

"I was giving him a little tribute. He would probably be a little upset that I even acknowledged him. He was a humble guy and I'm going to miss him a lot."

Wagner certainly did his grampy proud. On the whole, it was one of the hometown boy's better games in Black & Gold since signing as a free agent in July, as the winger landed a team-high six shots on goal in 14:26 of ice time.

"Chris Wagner's effort tonight, in the rears of his grandfather passing is - that's a pretty special night. You couldn't be more happy for the guy," said David Backes, who notched Boston's other goal, the eventual winner just two minutes into the second. "You kind of clench your teeth a little bit when the first one gets called back…almost an identical shot on the second one and those are the things you can rally around."

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, looking to establish some early puck possession and energy against the Sabres, went with a different approach to start things off on Saturday night, opting to deploy his fourth line of Wagner, Sean Kuraly, and Noel Acciari for the game's first shift.

"I think we talked a little bit about trying to establish a little more consistency in the second half and maybe that's a line that starts games at home to establish puck possession early and tilt the territorial advantage," said Cassidy. "A lot of times it's [Patrice Bergeron's] line that gets the start, but maybe that's something we can look at going forward, and they certainly earned their keep tonight."

It was indeed a sound decision. The trio burst out of the gates and surged into the Sabres end off the opening draw, immediately seizing control when Wagner slapped home a Kuraly rebound just 20 seconds into the game.

But the goal was waved off for goaltender interference. Cassidy challenged, but the call on the ice was upheld after review.

"Luckily we got another chance. We kept getting chances, too," said Wagner. "I thought we played a pretty solid game tonight and it was nice getting off to a good start even though that goal didn't count."

Video: Wagner scores in emotional victory

The triumvirate was clearly unfazed by the disallowed goal and continued to cause havoc in the Buffalo end. And at 10:10 of the first period, they struck once again, this time for keeps.

With Buffalo attempting to exit the zone, Acciari forced a turnover and poked the puck back into the slot. Wagner was there to pick it up and unleashed a wrister by the glove-side of Buffalo goalie Linus Ullmark, putting the Bruins ahead, 1-0, with his fifth of the season, while also providing the perfect tribute.

"We knew he was hurting and it was really cool - unfortunately the first one didn't count - just being able to follow up with another one," said Acciari, who picked up his second assist of the season and landed six hits.

Overall, Boston's fourth line combined for 10 shots on goal and 10 hits, continuing their strong stretch of play, which included Kuraly's game winner in the Winter Classic against Chicago on New Year's Day.

"They were our best line. I don't think there's any doubt," Cassidy said of the trio's performance against Buffalo. "They've been real good together. I think Chris Wagner's game has really come along and Kuraly's as well. Noel's a good fit in there."

Video: BUF@BOS: Acciari steals puck, sets up Wagner

The success has coincided with Cassidy's tweak of the line's personnel, which had Kuraly switching to the wing and Acciari moving back to center.

"Noel's reliable back there. He is smart and in the right spots," said Kuraly, who also tallied the overtime winner in Buffalo last Saturday. "We know he is going to take care of our end, so when he is back there, personally I'm feeling good about the D side of it.

"When I get the puck it's got a little more energy than when I have played center so it's all about holding on to it and keeping the puck in their zone…I know when we are playing offense that they are not going to score on us. So, that's what we try to do and try to play downhill."

Cassidy believes that the grouping - which has seen time together at various points of the season - is beginning to read off of each other better, particularly on the forecheck, providing them with more opportunities and, thus, more confidence in the offensive zone.

"Earlier in the year I'm not sure they had that nailed down," said Cassidy. "[Wagner's] a good player in the league. I think maybe early on it took him a while to find his rhythm with his linemates. Maybe the puck's just finding him now and he's in one of those streaks where he's playing more."

Whatever the reasons, it all clicked on Saturday night. At the perfect time.

"It's been obviously a tough couple of weeks for my family. Going through some struggles," said Wagner. "Sports is a great outlet and [my grandfather] loved sports so [tonight] definitely meant a lot."

Video: Cassidy discusses 4th line, Backes return

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