This season, the Boston Bruins were as good as a team can realistically be on the road, going 21-13-7 and earning the second-best road mark in the Eastern Conference. At home, it was a different story, with the Bruins posting a worse home record (18-17-6) than nine teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs.
Yet an entire season of frustration may have been wiped away with one spectacular playoff victory.
"Our fans were great tonight," defenseman Johnny Boychuk told reporters shortly after playing in his first home playoff game in the NHL. "You could hear them before the game chanting, even from the [locker] room. It was pretty loud out there."
Boychuk was a big reason why the crowd was as loud as it was, as his monster hit on Matt Ellis early in the second period sent an already-frenzied crowd into a state of pandemonium.
"I was expecting it to be this loud in Boston," Boychuk added. "And you know, with the Boston Marathon and the [Red] Sox game, it’s just probably pretty fun out there."
While Boychuk's hit on Ellis was one for the highlight reels, it wasn't the most important hit of the game. That one came from Mark Recchi midway through the third period, when the 43-year-old Recchi shouldered 23-year-old Tim Kennedy to the ice, affording the veteran winger some space to operate. As Recchi has proven since joining the Bruins last March, the man knows how to make the most of an opportunity. Recchi found Patrice Bergeron in the slot, and Recchi's 24-year-old linemate banged in the eventual game-winning goal past all-world goaltender Ryan Miller.
"Without a doubt, that was a huge play at that time in the game," coach Claude Julien said. "[Recchi] outmuscled his way in there and made that great pass to Bergeron. I thought that our team overall played hard, and it was only fitting that something like that would happen."
While the highlights were many for the Bruins players, the fans were as much a part of the story of the game. NESN play-by-play announcer Jack Edwards — a man whose job sends him to the Bell Centre and the Air Canada Centre three times a year, among other places — declared that it was the loudest building in the NHL. Zdeno Chara seemed to agree.
Chara helped keep the spirit in the building alive by preventing the Sabres from netting a power-play goal, as he and his fellow penalty killers held Buffalo to an 0-for-3 night. The Sabres are now 0-for-12 in the three games thus far.
"It was pretty loud," said the B's captain. "In [the] playoffs, the fans really step up their involvement and they get into the game pretty loudly, and that’s always nice to see and always nice to play in that kind of atmosphere."
That atmosphere was in part created by Dennis Wideman, a man who's drawn the ire of frustrated fans throughout the season. The defensmean has been noticeably more consistent since the calendar turned to April, and having the fans' support may have given him the confidence he needed to blast the game-tying goal past Miller late in the first period.
"I thought about [passing the puck] for a second, but then [decided that] you have to play to win and play to score," Wideman said.
That he did, as his one-time bomb cleared Miller's right shoulder, tipped off the crossbar and found the back of the net.
Wideman also helped rile up the crowd in the third period, when he stepped up to challenge Craig Rivet after the Buffalo captain had battered Andrew Ference with a few punches. Wideman ended up in the box, but he — along with Vladimir Sobotka, a guy who's gone 110 percent all series — made a statement that the Bruins would not be pushed around on their home ice.
Of course, no matter how thrilling or inspiring the victory was, it was only one game. Had the B's played that kind of game all season at home, they'd be facing a task less difficult than taking on Miller and the Sabres in the first round.
Still, a season that's been marred by injuries and disappointments seemed like a distant memory when the teams were lined up for a faceoff in the Buffalo end of the ice in the final seconds of the game on Monday.
The fans were told earlier in the day that Marc Savard was nearing a return to the ice, offering them some hope that maybe this team could make a deep playoff run. Perhaps inspired by that hope, the fans nearly blew the roof off the Garden, and the Bruins responded.
Even in the wake of such an emotional tilt — one that saw a combined 62 shots on net and 48 penalty minutes dished out — Julien was able to put things into perspective.
"Through the course of a season," the coach said, "you get through ups and downs. Some years are better than others. The biggest thing is to stick with and I think that’s what we did. We stuck with it, through thick and thin. I guess I’ve been around long enough to know that sometimes you can go through some tough times, but if you can grab some momentum at the right time of the year, a lot of things can happen. We believed in ourselves and believed in our group, and we stuck to it and eventually things started turning around."
How far those things will turn is yet to be determined, but Monday night's 60-minute effort is at least a sign that there's a chance, especially if home ice remains such a factor for the Bruins. They're still far from a favorite to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup, but they've already proven the computer simulations wrong.
As Monday night showed, there's no way a computer can quantify the kind of impact that 17,565 fans can have on the game.