The Bruins will go from playing one Original Six rival to another. Coming off a...hell, I've run out of superlatives, let's just call it "convincing" 7-0 victory over Montreal on Thursday night, the Bruins will host the New York Rangers on Saturday afternoon at TD Garden.
The Rangers are riding an impressive streak, having gone 7-4-1 since the trade deadline. Like Boston, the Rangers acquired a puck moving defenseman at the trade deadline in a bid to improve their struggling power play. Unlike Boston, they have been unequivocally successful in that plan. The Rangers power play has gone 10 for 40 since the trade deadline, for an impressive 25%, and Bryan McCabe has been a big part of that, with a goal and four assists on the power play, in just 12 games.
Their strong play of late has all but sewn up a playoff berth for the Broadway Blueshirts. They sit in 7th place in the East, with a 7 point cushion over 9th place Carolina. Only a major collapse would keep them out of the postseason at this point, and 6th place, and a likely first round date with the Bruins, is well within reach.
The Rangers, like many teams with a clear #1, workhorse goaltender, began the season with a goal of taking some load off Henrik Lundqvist. And now, with 7 games left in their season, Lundqvist has started 19 straight games for the Rangers, and is a good bet to make it 20. With a 2.28 GAA and .922 save percentage, Lundqvist can match up to the league's best netminders.
The Rangers are a mirror image of the Bruins in many ways, apart from boasting a world-class goaltender (or, you know, two, in Boston's case). They feature a balanced attack that has produced four 20 goal scorers and is likely to produce two more before season's end. The offense is led by Ryan Callahan, Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky, 20+ goal scorers all (as is Brian Boyle). Rookie Derek Stepan has been a tremendous addition to the lineup, with 19-21-40 on the season.
On defense, the Rangers lean heavily on their #1 pairing of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. The two have identical +8 +/- ratings, while facing the toughest competition the other teams have to offer, and starting more of their shifts in the defensive zone. And just to ramp up the degree of difficulty rating, John Tortorella likes to team his #1 defensive pairing with his team's, ah, "lesser lights"; the two have the 3rd and 4th worst "quality of teammates" on the Rangers.
The Bruins awoke from their recent mini-slump with a fury, having outscored their opponents 11-0 since Ilya Kovalchuk scored a first period power play goal Tuesday night. At 5 on 5, the Bruins may be the NHL's best team. But, the penalty kill, ironclad in 2009-10, has been unspectacular this year, and the power play has been a consistent source of aggravation. The power play has looked better over the last two games, and was absolutely sublime against Montreal, so one hopes it's turned the corner, rather than just demonstrating a brief statistical variation.
Milan Lucic leads the Bruins with 30 goals, and his 58 points are just one behind David Krejci for the team lead. And though he's often been accused of having a down season, Zdeno Chara remains the rock of Boston's defense. His 45.7 defensive zone start percentage is one of the most defensive-oriented in the league, and has surely depressed his offensive stats. It's not so bad when you can consider those unfavorable zone starts with 42 points and a +28 a "down year". Chara has been nothing short of magnificent of late, with 10 points in his last 7 games, since the incident in Montreal.
The Bruins are looking at a back-to-back series, playing the Rangers on Saturday and then the Flyers on Sunday, so look for Tim Thomas to start one and Tuukka Rask to start the other. Given how impressive Thomas was against Montreal, one would assume he gets the start Saturday, and Rask Sunday.
The Bruins enter the game relatively healthy, missing only Marc Savard now and possibly forever more. The Rangers aren't so fortunate, as they will be without Chris Drury, Alexander Frolov, and even, alas, pugilist extraordinaire Derek Boogaard.
- Quick, name the top two teams in the East in goal differential. You probably picked Boston, and good for you if you did, but would you believe the Rangers are the other? They're tied with the Flyers at +36. This is a team better than its record.
- These teams have swapped 3-2 wins this year, both much earlier in the season. They'll finish up the season series on April 4 at MSG.
- There's a decent chance you'll see a good scrap in this one. The Bruins, of course, are among the league's leaders in fighting majors, with 68, 4 behind St. Louis and 1 behind Pittsburgh. The Rangers, however, are a respectable (or, if you're a Habs fan, deplorable) 6th, with 55. And while they'll be missing Boogaard (who Jack Edwards aptly described as an "aircraft carrier on skates"), Brandon Prust has 16 fighting majors this year, and Sean Avery, whatever his other flaws, is not afraid to drop the gloves.
- I wouldn't look for line changes from Boston in this one. In particular, the reunited "Merlot Line" of Brad Marchand, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton have worked well together. Maybe Marchand doesn't get to exercise his scoring touch as much, but he's not a fish out of water on the fourth line like Tyler Seguin or Michael Ryder.
- Tomas Kaberle scored his first Boston goal Thursday night, and was indicative of a larger trend this year of Bruin defensemen pinching toward the net when they see opportunities. (See also: Chara's goal against New Jersey) Without a big gun on offense, the Bruins will need to rely on this sort of total team attack to score. It's worked so far, for the most part, at least on offense.
- Puck drops at 1 pm. NESN has the broadcast. DirecTV viewers can catch the Bruins telecast on 772, 772-1 HD. 98.5 FM will have the radio call, as usual.
- To check out this game from a New York State of Mind, you can go to Blueshirt Banter.