BOSTON — Emotion is often the life blood of a fourth line banger like Chris Wagner. On most nights, he may barely get 10 minutes of ice time, but he has to be at full-tilt 100 percent of the time as his teammates are often reliant on guys like him to keep the momentum if things are going well, or change the course of the game if they aren’t.
Wagner played with plenty of emotion in the Bruins’ 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres. It was the kind that could have been a terrible burden, but the Walpole, Mass., native made sure it worked for him, not against him.
On Friday, Wagner’s maternal grandfather and biggest fan, Jim Phelan, died. But instead of playing with a heavy heart, the memories of his grandfather babysitting him, taking him to the odd hockey practices and countless other family moments lifted Wagner up and allowed him to play his best game as a Bruin.
Wagner first scored just 20 seconds into the game and the winger kissed his glove and pointed to the sky in tribute. But it wasn’t going to be that easy. The officials washed it out for goalie interference on linemate Sean Kuraly.
“That happened so quick, it was too good to be true, especially for our line,” said Wagner with a smile.
Considering he went into the game with just four goals one the season and his career high is six, the chances of him scoring again seemed slim. But it happened. Before the period was out, linemate Noel Acciari poked the puck away from rookie Rasmus Dahlin to Wagner in the slot. He wheeled around and, with time and space from a high danger area, beat goalie Linus Ullmark with a high wrister at 10:10. Same celebration.
“This was a special game for me. Maybe he was watching out for me, making the puck follow me around. Who knows? But he was probably laughing after that first goal was disallowed,” said Wagner.
Wagner said his grandfather never missed one of his games, and was even able to watch the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day. And he loved all Boston sports.
“If anyone knows Norwood, he was a Norwood guy, through and through,” said Wagner.
And the goal celebration?
“Yeah, I was just giving him a little tribute. He probably would have been a little upset that I even acknowledged him but, yeah, he was a humble guy and I’ll miss him a lot,” said Wagner.
“It’s been a tough couple of weeks for my family. We’ve been going through some struggles, especially with it being my Mom’s (Cindy) dad. I feel bad for her. But sports is a great outlet and he loved sports, so it definitely meant a lot.”
Wagner and his mates didn’t check out of the game once he scored the goal. As coach Bruce Cassidy said, their line was the B’s best all night and Wagner might have been the best of the three. He put a team-high six shots on net and continually thwarted Sabres breakout attempts. His linemates were happy to be part of his night.
“I knew, and then I saw his celebration on the replay and it clicked with me that it was a special one for him,” said Kuraly. “It’s always good to see and I think we were feeding of it. He was playing inspired tonight, playing hard. I think it was a special night for him.”
Cassidy has been looking for a way to get his team to start better at home and his remedy on Saturday was start the Wagner’s line. He wasn’t sorry. They set the tone at the start of each period and were consistently a handful for the Sabres. Kuraly also had four shots on net while Acciari doled out a half dozen hits.
It was the kind of game that GM Don Sweeney surely envisioned from the line when he signed Wagner as a free agent in the offseason. And when it was over, he was named the first star of the game, not exactly an everyday occurrence for him.
“It was pretty cool,” he said. “Yeah, it was special.”