Nothing like a little blood and guts to get the first round of the playoffs rolling between the Sabres and Bruins. These two teams looked like they were pining for the old days, when Buffalo and Boston would brawl first and ask questions about the game later.
It took two villains - Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara and Sabres winger Patrick Kaleta - for the series to take on a tone that is usually reserved after two or three games. Chara cross-checked Kaleta in the first period, igniting a melee between the two teams that looked like something out of 1988 at the old Aud.
"It's what playoff hockey is all about," said Bruins winger Mark Recchi, who had the only goal for Boston. "You're trying to take as much turf as you can and they're trying to keep that turf. It's fun to be part of this."
The two teams quickly made it clear that winning this series isn't going to be easy and definitely not pretty. The opener was filthy, nasty, mean and infinitely more entertaining than most people predicted.
And that was just in the first period.
"You feel good when you're cut," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "You feel good when you block a shot. You feel good when you've got your nose broken. And when you don't, you don't feel part of it."
The bigger, more physical Bruins attempted to push around the Sabres on their own turf, but Buffalo never backed down. Thomas Vanek scored in the first period for Buffalo and Craig Rivet had the winner on a slapshot in the second period.
Chara wound up taking three penalties, including a double-minor for the hit from behind on Kaleta. Kaleta needed 10 stitches above his eye to close a wound suffered later in the game when Steve Begin drove his head into the glass.
"I love it," Kaleta said. "The first game and you just get right into it. It's playoff time and it's our house. We want to play desperate and physical and you can keep naming words down the line. You have to do anything to help your team win."
Blake Wheeler tumbled into the boards in the first period after getting hammered from behind in a big check from Vanek. Wheeler idolized Vanek when he was a teenager and wound up following him to the University of Minnesota.
After he made the Bruins roster in training camp last season, somebody suggested Wheeler wear No. 18 - as in 18 Wheeler. The rookie instead chose No. 26, which was Vanek's number in Buffalo and became friends.
Apparently, there are no hard feelings.
"It doesn't matter, it's the playoffs," Wheeler said. "It doesn't matter who you're buddies with or who you know on the ice. You gotta go hard. I told him I would get back. Hopefully, I'll catch him with his head down once or twice."
Ruff is currently the longest-tenured coach in the NHL and has proven to be one of the better post-season bosses. Ruff has a 13-4 record in the first game of a playoff series since taking over in 1997-98. The Sabres have won five of six first-round series under him, 10 of 16 series overall and have a 53-36 playoff record with him behind the bench.
The trick for him, he said, is getting his players to relax under pressure and play without worrying about making a mistake.
"I'm a big believer in really trying to get after it in the playoffs," Ruff said. "I don't know that you can point to a playoff series where we really tried to win it defensively. I even go back to some of the early series. It was based on that we have nothing to lose."
Bruins assistant coach Craig Ramsay missed the game after he fell ill and was taken to the hospital. He was diagnosed with the flu and was expected to be back at practice Friday.
About 1,000 fans watched the game from outside HSBC Arena in what has become a playoff regularity. It began in 2006-07, when they had 10,000 people outside the building during the Eastern Conference final.
Recchi scored his 51st playoff goal of his career, the most of any active player currently in the playoffs. He has 124 points in 152 post-season games in his career.