BOSTON - Emerging from a moment of silence with a deafening cheer, fans at Wednesday night's Bruins game paid tribute to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing with a stirring a cappella national anthem and thunderous chants for their city, their country and their team.
Taking over the "Star-Spangled Banner" when longtime Garden troubadour Rene Rancourt signalled for them to sing, the sold-out crowd at Boston's first major sporting event since Monday's attack electrified the arena and spurred the Bruins to an early goal. Even after Buffalo tied it in the final minute and won in a shootout, 3-2, the Bruins fans departed with one final chant of "U.S.A.!"
"That's what Boston is all about," Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron said. "The city's a winner, for sure. It was something very special to be a part of. It's one of those games you really wanted to get — not only for the team, but for the city."
Two days after a pair of bombs at the marathon finish line killed three people and wounded 170 others, fans lined up for metal-detecting wands and random car inspections to get into the TD Garden. Once inside, they watched a sombre video with scenes from the marathon that ended with the words, "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 honour the first responders who rushed to the aid of the injured.
Rancourt took his place for the "Star-Spangled Banner," but he sang only the first few lines, allowing the crowd to carry the tune while he pumped his fist to keep time.
"It was extremely emotional. I was definitely fighting back tears," Bruins forward Brad Marchand said. "It's something that we'll never forget. For everyone to show their respect and obviously give their thoughts and prayers for everyone, it's great that everyone is kind of coming together at this time and helping each other out."
It was a touching return to normal life for the city, which has been dazed by the attacks on one of its signature and most beloved events. Monday's scheduled NHL game against Ottawa was rescheduled, and Tuesday night's Celtics game was cancelled outright.
"We understood what it meant to Boston," said Buffalo's Ryan Miller, who was 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 colours of the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the marathon. Another thunderous cheer welcomed the first responders from the state and local police were recognized in the second period.
Bruins players and staff collected 80 tickets to the game to donate to the first responders. Forward Brad 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 Richards, 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 was tough to come to the rink and focus on hockey, but I think the guys did a good job," forward Shawn Thornton said. "You feel like you should be doing more than getting ready for a hockey game. But if we can take people's minds off it for a few hours, great."
That was already accomplished 5:45 into the first period, when Daniel Paille's goal to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead over the Buffalo Sabres brought a raucous chant of "We are Boston!" The chant was repeated in the final three minutes but interrupted by Cody Hodgson's power-play goal with 26.6 seconds left in regulation that sent the game into overtime tied 2-2.
The Sabres won in the shootout, but Bruins earned one point for the overtime loss — enough to clinch a playoff spot. After the game, the players came off the bench and went to centre ice, raising their sticks to the fans, who began another "U.S.A.!" chant.
"I am sure the score will be the last thing I think about in 10 years," Bruins forward Chris Kelley said afterward in the team's dressing room, where a jersey reading "Boston 617 Strong" hung in the locker belonging to forward — and Boston University graduate — Jay Pandolfo.
"We wanted to win the hockey game for the city and ourselves. We had a chance to do something — it might be a small thing, but something — that would put a smile on a few peoples' faces. That's the reason why all of us wanted to go out there and win."
Cars were searched inside and out before entering the arena's underground garage, with guards using a mirror on a pole to check the undercarriage. Fans were waved with a metal-detecting wand when entering the arena.
Pandolfo said at the morning skate that the added security reminded him of the Sept. 11 attacks. He was playing in the New York area, for the New Jersey Devils, at the time.
"It brings back memories you don't want," he said. "It's something you don't want to think about. You want to go ahead with your life. You don't want to live in fear."