BOSTON - Demoralizing.
What other word can you use to describe this Red Sox-ian collapse last night by the Bruins?
After a performance where they went from having the best team in hockey on the ropes and ready to be knocked out with less than nine minutes to play, they finished the night with their most crushing defeat of the season.
What should have been a triumphant victory turned into a morbid 5-4 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres, one in which the Bruins coughed up a three-goal lead in the final period by failing to get the puck out of their zone at the most inopportune times.
"We don't have that killer instinct right now," admitted defenseman Paul Mara. "We have to develop that. You want to be a playoff team, you have to find a way to win in crunch time."
For nearly 52 minutes, it looked like the hotter-than-jalapenos Sabres were just the elixir that the ailing Boston Bruins needed.
Desperate to both generate some consistent offense and get going on the power play, the Bruins were able to do both last night by beating the Sabres at their own game: Skating relentlessly, forechecking at any and all opportunities and playing sound defensively in their own end.
They had a three-goal lead for the first time all season after fourth liner Mark Mowers one-timed a Brad Boyes pass by Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller early in the third period. They were 2 for 3 on the power play, making smart decisions with the puck during the man-advantage.
They also benefitted from Marc Savard's best night in a Boston uniform. The big center, who wore his new number (91), scored once on the power play and dished out a pair of assists.
Even the bad bounces they've been saddled with for much of the early part of this season took a night off - for most of the game, anyway. The best example was Patrice Bergeron's power-play slap shot from inside the blue line that clanged off the right post - only to bounce right out to Savard out front, whose ensuing backhand found its way past Miller.
Hard to believe, but the Bruins were about to soundly beat a team that had dismantled them rather easily at the Garden (6-2) less than two weeks ago.
But in a more horrifying fashion than the traffic leaving downtown Salem on Halloween two nights ago, this feel-good story became a horror show in the end.
"We just didn't keep going at them. We can kind of sat back," said Savard.
It seemed innocuous enough when Buffalo's most skilled player - right wing Maxim Afinogenov - knocked a shot past Tim Thomas with 8:49 to play, slicing Boston's lead to 4-2. While the lead still seemed safe, it appeared to breathe new life into the beast that is the 2006-07 Buffalo Sabres.
Doing what it does best, Buffalo kept skating and attacking. With 2:30 to go, Afinogenov capitalized again, this time picking up the rebound of a bad angle shot from Thomas Vanek and putting it past a surprised Thomas. Now the Bruins' lead was 4-3, and you got the feeling that the intimate gathering of 12,547 knew what destined to happen next.
"We sat back on our heels," said Savard, "and watched it happen. You can't do that against this offense."
In full offensive pressure mode at this point, the great team with the NHL's ugliest uniforms struck for a third - and most devastating - time. Adam Mair won a battle along the boards to Thomas' left and threw the puck out front to Alex Kotalik's waiting stick. He quickly snapped a one-timer past Thomas, who watched the puck hit the back of the net before hanging his head momentarily in resignation of what had just transpired.
All of the good things that had taken place for the first two and a half periods - the structured play of the Boston defense, the cohesiveness of the newly configured lines, the neutral zone play and, of course, the team's power-play efficiency - were rendered moot.
It became official when the Bruins, shooting first, could only beat Miller once in the shootout, that coming on Bergeron's effort on his team's third and final try. Buffalo got it by Thomas twice, with Kotalik roofing a backhand high over Thomas' left shoulder for the game-winner.
The Sabres showed why they are off to a fabulous 11-0-1 start, with 23 out of a possible 24 points. The Bruins, alas, showed why they are already miles behind Buffalo in the Northeast Division standings, sitting with a mere eight points (3-5-2) after 10 games.
Ever the optimist, captain Zdeno Chara wanted to focus on the positive, even after sporting some fresh stitches around his right eye courtesy of a Mair high stick in the final seconds of regulation.
"It's tough to lose like that," he said, "but at least we earned a point."
On any other night, that might have been a viable consolation prize. Not on this night, though.
Not when their best victory turned into their most hideous defeat.
Phil Stacey is the sports editor of The Salem News. He can be reached at 978-338-2650 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
1. Marc Savard, C: Best game as a Bruin for the free-agent signee, who drove to the net with abandon all night.
2. Maxim Afinogenov, RW: Buffalo sniper attacked the net with a vengeance, scoring twice and nearly adding two more.
3. P.J. Axelsson, LW: A goal, an assist and his usual solid play in all three zones for the ultimate lunch-pail guy.