By HOWARD ULMAN
BOSTON — A win for the Bruins would have been an uplifting end to the city’s emotional return to major sports after the Boston Marathon bombing.
Simply playing the game was good enough.
A moving “Star-Spangled Banner,” a touching slideshow of marathon scenes and a postgame, stick-raising salute to the capacity crowd by both teams made it a night to remember two days after a pair of deadly explosions at the city’s revered race.
“It was still positive in the way that we had an event and we had cheering and we had people out and about, having a good time,” Boston’s Andrew Ference said after Buffalo’s 3-2 shootout win Wednesday night. “To get a win, we wanted it so bad. I think you still take the good from the night.”
The Bruins nearly got that win, but with just 26.6 second left in regulation, Cody Hodgson scored the Sabres’ second power-play goal. And when Drew Stafford got the only shootout goal on the final shot, Buffalo had its victory.
The competition over, players from both teams gathered at center ice and hoisted their sticks in recognition of the fans, the city and the determination of both to remain resilient after two explosions near the finish line killed three people and injured more than 170 on Monday.
“We are trying to put on a show for the fans and, hopefully, give them some sort of escape,” Stafford said. “With everything that happened, emotions were extremely high tonight. I am sure that there were not a lot of dry eyes in the stands during the anthem.”
It has been sung at Bruins games for more than 30 years by Rene Rancourt. On Wednesday, dressed in his trademark tuxedo and gold bow tie, he sang the first few lines then gestured to the crowd to join in. Most of the 17,565 fans lifted their voices in an a cappella version.
“You’re around thousands of people you don’t know, but it’s like we’re all one,” Boston’s Brad Marchand said. “It was special there tonight and very emotional.”
The crowd energized the players and for the first 35 minutes, the action was sharp and swift.
Daniel Paille scored his ninth goal of the season for Boston at 5:45 of the first period, Thomas Vanek got his 17th for Buffalo at 18:20, and Chris Kelly gave the Bruins a 2-1 lead at 14:48 of the second.
“It was nice to score but it’s such a small thing,” Kelly said, “especially on a night like tonight.”
Both teams got a boost in the standings.
The one point the Bruins earned clinched a playoff berth and moved them from fourth to second in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres’ third straight victory put them in 10th place in the East, two points behind the eighth and final playoff spot but with only four games left.
“We have a chance to just write our own story,” Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller said. “We have to win our own hockey games and maybe get some help along the way. Tonight we helped ourselves a little bit and we still have games against teams ahead of us (in the standings).”
The game was played amid tightened security. Fans quietly lined up for metal-detecting wands and random car inspections to get into the TD Garden.
The video on the scoreboard above center ice ended with the message, “We are Boston, We are Strong.”
The players on the ice for the opening faceoff banged their sticks in the traditional hockey salute, drifting back off the blue lines so that they, too, could see the video. The Boston Fire Department Honor Guard brought out the U.S. flag to honor the first responders who rushed to the aid of the injured.
And the national anthem had Marchand “fighting back tears.”
The Bruins returned to action after Monday night’s game against Ottawa, scheduled to start less than five hours after the explosions, was postponed and later rescheduled for April 28. Tuesday night’s NBA game at the Garden between the Indiana Pacers and Celtics was canceled outright.
But on Wednesday night, a bit of normalcy returned on a sheet of ice surrounded by nearly 18,000 fans.
“We understood what it meant to Boston,” said Miller, the starting goalie on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team. “You’re really a citizen of the world and this is an attack on a free country. … It’s emotional for us, too. It’s a scary situation. We’re happy to see from all this terribleness that Boston has pride, Boston cares and people are coming together.”
Players on both teams wore “Boston Strong” decals on their helmets, and the Garden was illuminated outside in blue and yellow, the colors of the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the marathon. Another thunderous cheer welcomed the first responders from the state and local police who were recognized in the second period.
Bruins players and staff collected 80 tickets to the game to donate to first responders. Marchand raffled off his own suite for the team’s first playoff game, with the proceeds to go to the family of 8-year-old Martin Richard, who was killed in the blast.
Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs pledged $100,000 to The One Fund Boston, the charity established to help families affected by the bombing; the Garden, the NHL and the players association pledged $50,000 each. Ads on the dasher boards and the video screens gave the website address for the fund.
During the game’s first break, public address announcer Jim Martin asked any runners from Monday’s race to stand up; many were wearing their finishers’ medals. He then asked for applause for anybody who has ever run. By the time he recognized anyone who has ever volunteered or watched the race, virtually the entire crowd was standing.
“It wasn’t just about hockey tonight,” Boston’s Patrice Bergeron said. “I guess it is something I’ll remember. It’s something I hope I don’t have to feel that way again because it’s a tragedy.”