Brian Flynn acknowledged after the game that it’s still a little strange when he plays against the Bruins. He grew up in Lynnfield, Mass., about 20 miles north of Boston and was a big fan. He had finished his junior year at Maine when they ended their long drought and won the Stanley Cup in 2011.
Flynn has come to know several Boston players from offseason workouts, and admires their success like any New Englander would. The Bruins have become a model franchise that has reached the finals twice in three years, so it wasn’t as if they held a spot for him as an undrafted free agent because they were his favorite team.
They had good reason to ignore him after college, but there was no ignoring him after the best game of his career Thursday. Flynn had an evening to remember when he scored a shorthanded goal and set up Tyler Myers for the clincher in a 4-2 victory over the first-place Bruins that validated Buffalo’s win over Winnipeg.
Like Flynn, the first star after his first two-point night, like the suspicious crowd, the Sabres are starting to come around. The team that couldn’t shoot straight has suddenly scored eight goals in back-to-back victories over the Bruins and Jets. Flynn should have a few fans in the stands Saturday night when they play again in Boston.
“I was a little fired up to be playing against Boston, my home team for my whole life,” Flynn said. “It was a good night. They know how to win. They play for 60 minutes every night, and they have two good lines that can score goals. It was a solid win. I’m a Boston guy. I know how good they are. I know what a good team they have.”
Now, they know he can play with them, too.
Flynn opened the scoring with a shorthanded goal in the first period when he broke free and rattled home a backhander that bounced off the post, off backup goalie Chad Johnson and behind the goal line. It was a pretty play, one topped by his gorgeous cross-ice pass to Tyler Myers to complete the scoring.
Ted Nolan needed help down the middle after Cody Hodgson suffered a wrist injury late in the first period. The Sabres already had enough problems against the better, deeper Bruins when they lost their most-skilled center and leading scorer. It meant more ice time, and a better opportunity, for Flynn to jump off the fourth line.
The final goal was a keeper. Flynn took off down the left wing and could have fed Matt D’Agostini in front of the net. Instead, he waited patiently for the flyby and found Myers trailing down the opposite wing. He sifted a pass through the zone, and Myers whistled a hard wrist shot just inside the post to put the Bruins away.
“He has a real quiet demeanor about him,” said Sabres coach Ted Nolan. “Sometimes, you don’t even notice him at practice unless you just watch him. He’s so quiet, but he was sure loud tonight the way he played. … Flynner is one of those guys that just goes about his business. It was nice to see him get rewarded for it.”
The Sabres won because they played loose and confident. It has been coming along in increments since Nolan and Pat LaFontaine arrived. It wasn’t as if Nolan showed up with a magic wand that allowed his players to suddenly believe in themselves. They started playing better because he believed in them.
In first comments to his new team, Nolan talked about simplifying the game and rediscovering what led each one of them to the NHL in the first place. It was music to younger players who were bogged down by complex systems. The Sabres are playing hard but instinctive, and the results are finally starting to show.
Marcus Foligno has been playing with more bang, more jam, after Nolan pleaded with him to use his big body around the net. He scored for the second straight game Thursday from about two inches outside the crease. His goal late in the second period tied the game, 2-2, after Brad Marchand scored twice in a 74-second span.
Drew Stafford – yes, Drew Stafford – scored the winner after 17 games without a goal when he beat Johnson on a wraparound. And just like that, you could see the Sabres confidence soaring into the final five minutes. You’re seeing evidence of progress after spending the better part of three years watching them get progressively worse.
The Bruins were banged up with injuries and played their backup goaltender, but nobody was apologizing for the victory afterward. Any victory for Buffalo over any team is a good one. A victory over the Bruins is even better, especially when their records were basically reversed going into the game.
“That’s a team everybody compares themselves to and wants to measure up to them,” said Foligno. “You have players you want to measure up to, guys like Lucic and Bergeron. If you have a chance to shut them down and beat that team, you’re building a lot of confidence. It was a huge team win for us. We just want to keep rolling.”
Like it or not, admit it or don’t, the Bruins have been the Sabres’ measuring stick for the past three seasons now, if not their model. It was the Bruins who exposed the lack of toughness and leadership in that infamous Nov. 12, 2011, game in which Milan Lucic ran over Ryan Miller and walked away unscathed.
For all the turmoil in recent years, it was that moment in which the Bruins asserted their superiority over the Sabres. Buffalo may have beaten Boston in games that followed, but there was never a sense the Sabres were better or tougher or respected. The relationship was mostly about Buffalo despising Boston. Boston disregarded Buffalo.
The Bruins are what the Sabres want to become with Marchand, whom Nolan called “the perfect Boston Bruin,” and a two-way center in Patrice Bergeron and future Hall of Famers such as Jarome Iginla and Zdeno Chara. You know the list. Flynn was essentially a no-name before beating them Thursday night.
“I don’t try to do too much out there,” Flynn said. “Play a simple game, a good honest game. That’s the way you win hockey games in this league. Guys are starting to realize that now.”