– When the buzzer sounded to end the second period Thursday night and the 18,690 fans jammed into HSBC Arena remembered to exhale, Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller
picked himself up and wobbled wearily toward the dressing room, looking for all the world like a prizefighter on his last legs.
That because he was.
Miller had never faced a playoff barrage like the one Boston threw at him in the second period of Thursday night's Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Heck, the Sabres hadn't faced an onslaught like that in 30 years.
Boston fired 24 shots at Miller -- more than one a minute -- in the middle period. The 24 shots against tied a franchise low-water mark, set against Chicago in 1980.
"I was a little bit tired," Miller admitted after the game was finished; after his team escaped with a hard-earned 2-1 victory in the opener of what should be a back-and-forth, street-fight of a series. "We were happy to get out of there with a lead and have it hold up in the third."
The Bruins are still trying to figure out how Buffalo led after 40 minutes.
Buffalo entered the second period clinging to a 1-0 lead, courtesy of a brilliant goal by red-hot Thomas Vanek
. But the Sabres were completely outclassed in the second period. Boston was the faster, hungrier, more efficient team -- and as a result, Miller was under siege.
"Second period, they just upped their level of play," said Buffalo defenseman Craig Rivet
, who lifted the siege by scoring what proved to be the game-winning goal late in the second period. "They were the better team. They wanted to get the puck deep, they wanted to turn their back and make it difficult on our defense. We tried to collapse in our box and they seemed to try to use the point. They had a lot of shots; probably a good 10 or 15 shots from their point alone."
Actually, Boston had nine shots from the point in the second, including five from rookie Johnny Boychuk
and three more bombs from Zdeno Chara
. That means there were 15 shots from the forwards -- everyone up front except for fighter Shawn Thornton
got in on the action, firing off at least one shot. Blake Wheeler
alone had four, half of what Buffalo, as a team, managed in the second.
Yet, only crafty vet Mark Recchi
, on the power play, could solve Miller as he flopped and dove all over the ice, trying to absorb the period without suffering a knock-out shot. Recchi pounced on a big rebound of a slapper by Chara and beat Miller to temporarily tie the game at 1-1.
"We created quality chances, especially in the second period, and it just didn't go in," said Chara, the Boston captain. "Obviously we felt we should have scored a few goals but we didn't and that is the way it is in playoffs."
Believe it or not, the second period may well become the defining moment of this series, if not Buffalo's entire playoff run.
At least Miller hopes so. He believes his team survived a serious test by surviving Boston's relentless assault in the second period. Now he believes his team will emerge in Saturday's Game 2 as a stronger, more playoff-ready side.
He saw signs of that in the third period Thursday night.
"For our group of guys to come out of that second period and to make every adjustment we could make was great. We ended up changing (lines) a lot better, we ended controlling the puck a lot better. We spent some time down in their zone; where in the second period we were trying to make a few things happen and we couldn’t get it to click."
-- Ryan Miller
The Sabres forgot about the helter-skelter nature of the previous 20 minutes and played shut-down hockey, limiting Boston to just six shots. More important, they kept the Bruins on their heels for much of the period, pinned in their own zone and forced to take some costly penalties because of the pressure applied by Buffalo's forecheck.
Thirty times in 30 tries during the regular season, Buffalo nursed at lead at the end of two periods into a victory at the final buzzer. On Thursday, they made it 31-for-31.
"We played a pretty smart period," Miller said. "For our group of guys to come out of that second period and to make every adjustment we could make was great. We ended up changing (lines) a lot better, we ended controlling the puck a lot better. We spent some time down in their zone; where in the second period we were trying to make a few things happen and we couldn't get it to click."
In other words, Miller says they behaved like a team serious about getting a taste of hockey in June should.
"If we do it right, it's going to be two months of hockey," Miller said. "We're not going to have every period go our way. To have one that was a little tense and to give up some shots on goal, but then to respond and get a goal back and then hold the lead in the third period in this kind of situation is really positive."