The Buffalo Sabres piled out of the bench amid jubilation. They skated over to goalie Ryan Miller and congratulated him on breaking a record. They lauded Thomas Vanek for his big goals. They let Maxim Afinogenov know they were glad to see him blurring about the ice again.
Then the Sabres skated to center ice and raised their sticks to salute the HSBC Arena faithful to close out one of the most memorable home seasons in Buffalo history.
The Sabres concluded their regular-season home schedule Thursday night, beating the Boston Bruins, 4-2. The Sabres won after trailing by two or more goals for the 10th time this season, two such comebacks short of the modern-day NHL record.
The Sabres also solidified their chances of clinching the President's Trophy. With two games to play against the Eastern Conference's two worst teams, the Sabres are tied with the Detroit Red Wings, who lost in a shootout to the Chicago Blackhawks and have just one game remaining.
The Sabres will finish the regular season with afternoon road games Saturday against the Washington Capitals and Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Buffalo tied the franchise mark it set last year by winning its 52nd game and did so in front of another packed house. HSBC Arena sold out its entire, 41-game home schedule for the first time since 1979-80, coach Lindy Ruff's rookie season.
"You feel it everywhere," Ruff said of the love. "You feel it at Tim Hortons. You feel it at the gas station. You feel it everywhere you go. Part of it is you look at the building tonight and 41 straight sellouts; our support has been tremendous.
"The fever is everywhere. You feel it. We're living it."
Miller made 20 saves to win his 39th game, eclipsing the record Don Edwards set in 1977-78. Dominik Hasek twice won 37 games with Buffalo.
"It'll mean more once the season's over," Miller said of the record. "We need 16 more in the playoffs. That's really what it comes down to."
Vanek helped make sure the 18,690 fans got to see a Sabres victory. He scored two goals, including the eventual winner off a short-handed rush 4:26 into the third period, and set up another. Ales Kotalik and Derek Roy also scored for Buffalo.
"You can't get back in games unless you can score," Ruff said. "We've been able to put together some shifts that get us back in games, and it can be one shift after another, where the other team really can't back us off."
Roy sprung Vanek for a breakaway that concluded with a backhander from tight range on helpless goalie Hannu Toivonen one second after Boston's power play expired. The goal gave Vanek a team-high 42 on the season and extended his goal streak to four games.
Roy added a power-play insurance goal with 4:16 to play, finishing a tic-tac-toe passing display with Vanek and Afinogenov, who returned after missing 21 games with a broken left wrist and seemed to lift the fans out of their seats every time he touched the puck.
"The fans really were into that," Sabres defenseman Toni Lydman said. "That guy can do amazing stuff with the puck. There's a reason he's so popular. It's unbelievable that skill on the ice."
Afinogenov received a loud ovation 3:37 into the game, when he climbed over the boards for his first shift. Last season's points leader was about to skate four-against-four with this season's top scorer, Daniel Briere.
The Bruins welcomed Afinogenov back with a quick goal. Defenseman Andrew Ference potted an up-close Phil Kessel rebound at 4:01. The Bruins took a 2-0 advantage on a power-play goal with 5:56 left in the first period after a review showed Patrice Bergeron's shot struck the back pipe.
"Definitely after my first shift, when we got down, 1-0, and then, 2-0," Afinogenov said when asked if he was nervous about his first game since Feb. 15. "When the guys tied the game I got some relief after that."
Buffalo evened the score before the intermission. Eighteen seconds after Bergeron's goal, Kotalik fended off Boston defenseman Aaron Ward in the right circle to get off a shot that beat Toivonen for his 16th goal.
Vanek tied it with 1:22 remaining in the period. Toivonen stopped Brian Campbell's one-timer and Drew Stafford's follow-up shot, but lost track of Vanek behind the cage. Vanek tucked the puck inside the left post for his 41st goal, the most by a Sabre since 1992-93, when Alexander Mogilny scored 76 and Pat LaFontaine had 53.
"He's scored timely goals for us. He's scored big goals recently," Ruff said of Vanek. "If he maintains this pace of play, he'll be fine in the playoffs."