The veteran Dutchman produced a fine 16th-minute save to deny Steed Malbranque and then saw compatriot Bolo Zenden hit a post eight minutes before the break as the home side enjoyed much the better of the first half of an entertaining goalless draw.
Half-time substitute Dimitar Berbatov had a 48th-minute strike ruled out for offside and after Nani had forced a good stop from Simon Mignolet, fired inches wide 10 minutes from time as United improved after the restart, but the Black Cats were more than good value for their point in front of an appreciative crowd of 41,709.
United's preparations were rudely interrupted by the burst pipe which flooded their dressing room ahead of kick-off, and the hospitality got little better when the game eventually kicked off 20 minutes later.
There is a new-found confidence about Sunderland this season fostered by a home victory over Manchester City and, in their last two Barclays Premier League games, more than creditable draws against Arsenal and Liverpool.
That, coupled with Bruce's determination to finally get one over on his old boss after years of trying in vain, ensured the visitors would not have things all their own way.
The 49-year-old's fears that Ferguson was being less than candid over Wayne Rooney's fitness proved unfounded when the England striker was not included in the 18, and Berbatov's presence only among the substitutes provided a further boost.
However, what will have pleased him most is the way his team took the game to United from the off to produce an opening 45 minutes which could and perhaps should have brought more tangible reward.
With Lee Cattermole, Steed Malbranque and Zenden totally eclipsing Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher in the middle of the field, the traffic was largely one way, and although lone striker Darren Bent had his work cut out, Nemanja Vidic left the field at half-time knowing he was in a game.
Sunderland had a glorious opportunity to take the lead with just 16 minutes gone when Cattermole's superb through-ball and Malbranque's excellent first touch put the Frenchman in on van der Sar.
However, the vastly-experienced Dutchman got in a vital block to spare his side, although that was far from the only occasion on which his goal came under threat.
Nedum Onuoha saw an instinctive shot hacked off the line after he had got a touch to Ahmed Elmohamady's driven cross, but it was the woodwork which came to United's rescue eight minutes before the break.
Zenden was allowed to set himself after shifting the ball on to his left foot 20 yards out, and although his swerving drive evaded van der Sar's out-stretched arm, it hit the post.
United offered little in response as striker Michael Owen found himself fatally isolated, and Mignolet did not have a single save of any note to make before the break, although Nani might have done better with a 39th-minute free-kick which flew well wide.
Owen's afternoon ended at the break when he was replaced by Berbatov as Ferguson sought to inject some menace into his side's game.
The Bulgaria international had the ball in the back of the net within three minutes of his arrival, although was clearly in an offside position when he turned home Scholes' miscued shot and the flag duly went up.
But although the visitors were playing with greater purpose now that they had a focal point to their attack, they continued to look vulnerable down their left with Elmohamady proving a constant threat.
If van der Sar had kept his side in the game before the break, Vidic had to do the same after it when Fletcher could only help Zenden's 63rd-minute free-kick towards his own goal, the defender blocking that and Elmohamady's follow-up before the Egyptian blasted the rebound high over.
United were living dangerously and they were relieved to see Malbranque's 67th-minute effort drop just over after Ferdinand had got in a partial block.
Bent, who had seen little of the ball in front of goal, had a sniff with 17 minutes remaining when full-back Phil Bardsley broke down the left and squared, but his left-foot shot flew wide.
Mignolet had to beat away Nani's dipping 77th-minute strike from distance and Berbatov blasted inches wide three minutes later with the game entering its closing stages.
Substitute Asamoah Gyan tested van der Sar's concentration levels with an acrobatic overhead kick six minutes from time, but Titus Bramble had to throw himself into the path of Vidic's late header to cement the draw.