In Boston, this was more than a game

Rene Rancourt, the Boston Bruins’ iconic anthem singer, delivered perhaps the most memorable performance of his career Wednesday night. It lasted about 15 seconds.

At that point in his rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Rancourt let the microphone drift away from his lips. The crowd – who came to smile, to cheer, to weep, to be – knew instantly what the gesture meant. On this night, of all nights, the song and its message did not belong to one man.

And so the city stood in soulful carol, Rancourt conducting the full-throated chorus of 17,565, in one of the most moving scenes I’ve witnessed – sports or otherwise. I coaxed the words out, too. Barely. Turns out it’s hard to cry and sing at the same time.

Hockey? Yes, the Bruins lost to the Buffalo Sabres, 3-2, in a shootout at TD Garden. The result mattered. The game mattered more. Bruins coach Claude Julien had remarked how, even as people walked the streets Wednesday morning, the city was quiet. “It’s different,” he said. And it was. Wednesday night was different, too, but in the most wonderful way. This was a city, a region and a country at their best.

In the loge, at least for one night, “LET’S GO BRU-INS!” became “LET’S GO BOS-TON!” and, even more poignantly, “WE ARE BOS-TON!”

“From the time you walked in, you could actually feel the energy,” Bruins forward Shawn Thornton said. “The people here have always been amazing. It was another level tonight.”

Think about what has happened this week: Monday, two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon – a cultural celebration with deep ties to the New England identity. Three people died. More than 170 are injured. Yet, two nights later, a sellout crowd filed into a large public building, atop a bustling commuter transit hub, and watched a hockey game together.

This was more than a mid-April meeting of Northeast Division rivals. This was part vigil, part public adoration for the Marathon runners and first responders, part jamboree to spite the faceless agents of all the pain. As the fans filed out, they probably talked a little about what happened on the ice – specifically the controversial delay of game penalty on Andrew Ference that led to the Sabres’ tying goal with 26.6 seconds left in regulation.

Yet I suspect New Englanders – and Americans – spent more time reliving the important moments that took place beyond the glass. The house lights dimmed around 7:30 p.m. local time. There was a moment of silence, followed by a gripping montage of still photos: tears of anguish, tears of relief, tourniquets, flowers, flags, embraces, heroes, candles, and one message on a hockey skate – PRAY FOR BOSTON.

“I was definitely fighting back tears,” Bruins forward Brad Marchand said. “To see how everyone was reacting to that video, it touched not only people here tonight but everyone at home watching. It’s something we’ll never forget.”

The Bruins’ starters stood on the ice and craned their necks to get a better view of the video as it played on the scoreboard. The Sabres did the same, straying from the blue line in order to see. The Sabres – including Brian Flynn, native of nearby Lynnfield, Mass. – did the same. Flynn, 24, was technically a visitor Wednesday night. But Boston is his home. Later, he would acknowledge that the national anthem was the most emotional he’d ever heard. “It gave you chills,” Flynn said.

The Bruins wanted desperately to win Wednesday, and it stung them to lose after victory seemed imminent. In fact, they were probably more disappointed than the fans – who may forget the final score by next week but always remember how the night made them feel.

Boston center Chris Kelly scored what could have been the game-winning goal late in the second period. But when I asked what he’d remember about the night 10 years from now, he said nothing about flipping a hockey puck over Ryan Miller’s left pad.

“The tribute video and the anthem, obviously, will be the first things that come to mind,” Kelly said. “The applause the (first responders) got was definitely something special. I’m sure the score will be the last thing I think about in 10 years.

“Right now, we all really wanted to win that hockey game for the city and ourselves. But down the road, it’ll be those things that stick out.”

One of the night’s most touching images came after the game ended. The Sabres, desperate for points in their bid to make the playoffs, celebrated briefly but enthusiastically after Drew Stafford’s shootout winner. Then the teams met near the spoked-B at center ice and raised their sticks in unison to salute the fans. Some players clapped their hockey gloves together. The crowd returned the gratitude – for the competition, for the distraction – as their prolonged ovation gave way to a “U-S-A!” chant.

Flynn said Sabres assistant captain Thomas Vanek had discussed the plan during warm-ups with Boston captain Zdeno Chara. It was a classy and elegant way to end the night, a mere two miles and two days removed from fear and chaos. “We’re two teams going at it, but the most important thing is our country’s safety,” Flynn said. “It was good to show that we respect each other, even though we’re playing in an intense game like that.”

How many of the moving vignettes will reprise Friday, when the Bruins host the conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins? That is not clear. There could be only one first game in Boston following the horrors of April 15, 2013. But it’s also obvious how important the Bruins – and the Red Sox, and the Celtics – are in helping New England cope.

“I think it’s going to continue,” Marchand said. “With how everyone was tonight, the atmosphere and the way everyone came together, it’s not something you can let go of. It’s something that is going to continue to build from there. Everyone’s going to keep getting stronger and stronger, continue to unite and fight through this.”

You can describe it however you wish: camaraderie, diversion, group therapy. The point is that nearly 18,000 mourners smiled Wednesday night. The Bruins didn’t win. And that’s OK. Their fans were looking for a different sort of victory.