The Bruins knew it was coming. Despite the protestations from the Sabres that the points were more important than revenge and the league's warnings to both teams, the Bruins knew there would be some physical challenges they would have to face when they went into Buffalo on Wednesday.
But the difference between the Bruins and the Sabres was that Boston also knew how to respond in such situations.
The Sabres had to do something to redeem themselves for their embarrassing lack of response to Milan Lucic's hit on Ryan Miller in Boston back on Nov. 12. Paul Gaustad, who was on the ice when that incident occurred and did nothing at the time, did his best to atone for that failure by challenging Lucic the first time they were on the ice together in the rematch.
They dropped the gloves 1:23 into the opening period, and Lucic promptly dropped Gaustad to the ice about 30 seconds later. Still, credit has to go to Gaustad for finally standing up for his team, even if it came 11 days too late.
But later in that first period, the Bruins showed Gaustad and the Sabres the way it really should be done. When Gaustad took a run at Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid led the charge as every Bruin on the ice immediately came to Marchand's defense. McQuaid rained down some punches on Gaustad in the main scrum, while captain Zdeno Chara separated from the pack and traded punches with an overmatched Robyn Regehr.
"You have to give Gaustad credit," Chara said. "He's a stand-up guy. He did a good job for his team, but also Looch did what he does and we move on. Everything that was happening afterwards was just a reaction from plays on the ice. I don't think that was anything to do with what was happening in previous games. It was a great hockey game, physical and a lot of chances and a lot of big saves."
Tim Thomas made all the saves he needed to make, including stopping all five Sabres attempts in the shootout as the Bruins rallied for a 4-3 win. Unlike the Buffalo netminders, Thomas never had to worry about whether his teammates had his back. Andrew Ference proved that in the second period when he tangled with Drew Stafford after the Buffalo forward crashed the crease a little too aggressively.
"Unbelievable, a lot of emotion in the first period," Bruins resident tough guy Shawn Thornton said. "I think we're built a certain way and I think we proved it again. I think a lot of guys stepped up. I mean I didn't have to do it and there were three or four fights. Andy [Ference] did a great job, standing his ground there when they bumped Timmy and let them know that wouldn't be allowed. Obvious Zee, Looch, Quaider, that's how we're built. We're pretty team tough and we're a tight group. Once we settled our emotions down and started playing our game I think things went really well."
The Bruins did fall behind 2-0 in the first. Despite winning the fights, the Bruins' lack of discipline and some very marginal penalty calls combined to help the Sabres score twice on the power play. That changed in the second when Boston got the only three power-play chances and converted one, then Chara tied the game with another power-play strike in the third.
"I thought we played well from the second period on," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "In the first period, a lot of stuff happened. I thought we had some real tough calls go against us, but we regained our composure in the second and got rid of that frustration and just focused on our game. One period at a time we kept coming back and that's what we talked about, winning the next two periods. And if we won the next two periods we were going to get ourselves a win or at least go into overtime and that's exactly what happened."
Benoit Pouliot's night was a microcosm of the team's overall effort. He was guilty of an elbowing penalty early in the first, but made up for that by scoring the only goal in the shootout to win the game.
"It was tough, we were in the box almost the whole first [period]," Pouliot said. "It felt like they maybe targeted us a bit more, but we came back. We played hard and never quit. The thing with this team that's awesome is we never quit, everyone's got each other's back and we came back at the end."
The rally pushed Boston's win streak to 10 games and put the Bruins back atop the Northeast Division. But they know the challenges are only going to get harder from here.
"It's going to keep getting tougher and tougher," Julien said. "Every team wants to break that streak and every team wants to play their best. Now they have two reasons to want to beat us, whether it's because we're Stanley Cup champions or whether it's because we're on a 10-game win streak. So we've got to expect the best out of every team, and for us it's about trying to stay on top of our game. The more you win the harder that gets. You don't want to get complacent and you don't want to get comfortable, so we've just got to keep grinding it out."