BOSTON -- When Marc Savard scored his winning goal in overtime to give the Boston Bruins a 5-4 victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday, he celebrated by throwing his stick into the TD Garden stands.
The Bruins' forward has come a long way since suffering a Grade 2 concussion on March 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the days and weeks following the injury, Savard believed there was no way he would be able to return this season.
Suddenly, on April 9, he woke up and felt much better. His recovery accelerated from that point and he went through all the necessary neurological testing and conditioning and was finally given medical clearance to play this past Monday.
Even though he was cleared to return to game action, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli gave coach Claude Julien final say on how Savard would be utilized. Julien said all week he would ease the team's top playmaker back into game action. After all, it is the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, not some regular-season game in November.
Julien needed to proceed with caution and the coach's blueprint worked perfectly.
With players from both teams absolutely exhausted from a full 60 minutes of up-and-down action, Savard had fresh legs and it proved crucial in overtime.
After three periods, Savard had logged only 11:51 of ice time. In the extra frame, however, Savard played 4:05 before ending the game at the 13:52 mark.
"Claude did a great job of playing me perfect minutes," said Savard. "I felt, as the game went on, I got stronger, and in overtime, I guess that's what coaches do when they feel something."
"It's the way we wanted it to be -- it was as simple as that," said Julien. "When a player comes back for the first time, that first period is always the toughest one. He got over that hump and we kind of managed it. I threw him out there as I saw fit when I watched him play and what he was able to do. As the game got into overtime, he felt that he was fresh enough. He hadn't overplayed and we tried to throw him in different situations."
After Savard's shot beat Flyers goaltender Brian Boucher, the 17,565 in attendance blew the roof off the Garden. The Bruins players jumped over the boards as if Flyers coach Peter Laviolette had just thrown a hand grenade into their bench.
"He played great hockey," said forward David Krejci, who scored the Bruins' fourth goal. "I can't remember the last time he played like that, I'm talking about the overtime. It was huge. A huge goal and it's a good win. We have the first one, but the next one is going to be much harder."
Like most athletes, Savard is superstitious and always wants to be the first player to follow the goaltender out on the ice before each game. Even though the Bruins won their first-round series against the Buffalo Sabres without him, Savard's teammates still obliged and let him go first prior to Game 1 on Saturday.
The fans gave him a standing ovation.
"To be honest, when I got out there, there was a little water in my eyes at first," said Savard. "It was a nice ovation. I've loved playing here and that's why I wanted to stay here. The crowd treated me great. My teammates were great with me all day and I just wanted to fit in."
He did more than that.
Despite his limited playing time during regulation, Savard did not deviate from his style of play. He was gritty. He made smart plays. He even received a roughing penalty. It was the type of game he needed to play in order to get his rhythm and timing back.
"I guess you can't script it any better," he said. "It's only Game 1, you've got to remember that. I'll have a lot of time to enjoy it actually because it was an afternoon game, so that was nice. But I need to get my rest and keep working through it and hopefully get after it in Game 2.
As much as the Bruins wanted to celebrate Savard's return, as well as his contributions, the victory in Game 1 was just as important.
"It doesn't matter who puts it in the net, a win is a win," Krejci said. "Tomorrow we know we have a win and that's about it. It's good for Savvy that he got his first one and I'm sure that will only give him confidence. It's good for him, but it's a team sport and we got the first one."
It was a team win, but from a personal standpoint, it had to be a huge confidence boost for Savard.
"Any time a guy steps in your lineup and hasn't played in two months and scores an overtime winner, you've got to take it certainly with a smile," Julien said. "Marc's got a good shot and sometimes he doesn't shoot often enough, but when he does he certainly can do some damage. It was the right time, he threw it at the net, it was a great shot and it was a great way to finish."
When his shot went in, he skated toward the half wall in the offensive zone and tossed his stick into the stands before jumping into the glass. His teammates piled on top of him. But somehow he ended up with his stick back.
"I thought it was a treat for somebody because [the fans] had been great all night, but the person threw it back," Savard said with a laugh. "I went off to do the three stars and all of a sudden I had my stick and I thought, 'Jeez, is it my head? Something's wrong here.' But no, I got it back. They probably thought I made a mistake, but that was actually a gift for somebody. So thanks for giving it back."
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.