The Bruins haven’t gotten many solid tests this season, especially in the Eastern Conference. Saturday should mark the first of four very good ones they’ll receive in the second half of their schedule. While the B's are far from playing their best hockey right now, Saturday’s matinee vs. the Rangers will give them a chance to both prove they’re the best team in the Eastern Conference.
For whatever scheduling reasons, the Bruins did not have a single meeting with the Rangers in the first half of the season. While that kept the conference’s top two teams from clashing early, they will now play each other once a month for the rest of the regular season. Both teams should be circling all four games on the calendar, beginning with Saturday, as the Rangers’ 4-1 loss to the Penguins Thursday night means first place in the Eastern Conference will be up for grabs. The B’s, who have one game in hand, have 61 points, one shy of the Rangers’ 62.
The Bruins should be feeling confident after their four unanswered goals (one of which was an empty-netter) against the Devils in the third period Thursday night, but short-term memory might be their only option if they want to feel good about their recent play. Claude Julien’s squad turned in a couple of lousy showings against the Panthers and Lightning this week, and were fortunate to come out of their Florida swing at 1-1-0. The B’s then came out with just 12 shots on goal through the first two periods Thursday in New Jersey and trailed the Devils, 1-0, after 40 minutes.
They woke up at the right time Thursday, getting goals from Andrew Ference, Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell to erase New Jersey’s lead before Chris Kelly sealed it with 47 seconds remaining. As they have far more than other teams, the B’s had their fourth line to thank for the win. Shawn Thornton had a two-point night, assisting Ference and Campbell’s goals, while Campbell picked up his first career Gordie Howe hat trick. The fourth-line center fought Brad Mills in the first period, got the secondary helper on Ference’s goal and made it 3-1 just 35 seconds after Horton broke the tie.
While plenty of credit should be given to Campbell’s line, just as much should be given to Julien for having the trio out there when he did. Julien often trusts the Merlot Line to take the ever-important shifts that follow goals, and after Horton gave the B’s the lead on the power play, Julien went with Campbell, Thornton and Daniel Paille and saw it pay off.
So, is one good period enough for the Bruins to be feeling confident for Saturday? The easy answer to that is that they’ve done enough to be confident already. Still, the B’s need to get steadier play from their defensemen – Joe Corvo, Adam McQuaid and even the perennially underrated Dennis Seidenberg have had their rough moments in recent games – and they need much better starts. Thursday’s first period marked the third consecutive game in which the B’s have mustered only six shots on goal through the first 20 minutes, and they’ve scored just one first-period goal over their last four games.
Like the Bruins, the Rangers are also in a bit of sluggish stretch. John Tortorella’s squad is 2-3-0 over its last five game, and the Rangers have been held to one goal or less in all three of those losses.
Of course, their goaltending is good enough that even if the B’s hold them to one goal, it might not be good enough to defeat the Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist is pretty hard to stop himself, as he is currently third in the NHL in both goals-against average (1.93) and save percentage (.936). Tuukka Rask leads the league in both categories.
Speaking of Rask and Lundqvist, don’t be surprised if that ends up being the goaltending matchup. It would seem that Rask is due for a start after Tim Thomas was given Tuesday and Thursday’s games. Rask stole the game for the Bruins in Monday’s shootout win, so while one might want to see a Thomas-Lundqvist matchup to see a potential playoff preview should the teams progress far enough and meet one another in a later round, it might make more sense if it’s Tuukka Time on Saturday.
As far as the Rangers’ offense goes, the Bruins blueliners will have their hands full. Marian Gaborik, who hails from the same town (Trencin, Czechoslovakia) as Zdeno Chara, is healthy and having a heck of a season in New York. Gaborik leads the Rangers with 23 goals and 36 points. Expect to see Chara out there plenty against Gaborik, Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin. The Rangers recently moved Hagelin, a rookie, to the top line after a strong start to his career. The 23-year-old Swedish forward scored the Rangers’ lone tally Thursday, his eighth goal in 26 career games.
Neither the Bruins nor the Rangers are playing as well as they were a month ago, but Saturday will provide the first of four chances to prove that they’re the best the Eastern Conference has to offer.