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Rangers and B’s in the first round would be a “true grit” test

04.04.09 at 5:37 pm ET
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The eventual outcome, the low scores on both sides and keen attention to detail, two of the best goaltenders in all of the Eastern Conference at the top of their goal-saving games, Sean Avery’s antics in the third period, the measured and disciplined defensive tone, and the undeniable buzz created by the classic ”sibling city rivalry” between Gotham City and the Hub.

All of these factors were on display in Boston’s 1-0 win over a desperate New York Rangers team at the Garden on Saturday afternoon, and they’ll surely be front and center if the current standings hold strong and these two hockey clubs square off and thrown down in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. To wit: Four of the last eight games between the B’s and Blueshirts have been 1-0 games with Tim Thomas and Henrik Lundqvist locked in classic goalie’s duels, and two of those games have been forced to shootouts for an ultimate winner and loser.

That’s how tight the series has been over the last two years, and that’s how razor-thin a potential seven-game series could be between the constantly-at-odds rival sports cities of Boston and New York. One tiny mistake in a game or the smallest sliver of space between a goaltender’s pads – like the peep hole that Blake Wheeler managed to find between King Henrik’s pads with a slap shot from the right point for the game’s only score – could be the crowning moment that tips the scales in a series of potential postseason matches between the two Original Six hockey foes.

It’s something the B’s skaters are well aware of, and will be ready for should it become an April reality.

With that in mind, B’s coach Claude Julien was intently gauging Saturday afternoon’s game as a hockey measuring stick of each team’s position with the postseason less than two weeks away. Julien came away satisfied with what he saw out on the Garden’s frozen sheet Saturday afternoon.

After playing three hard-fought games over a five day span and facing a team in the Rangers desperate to improve their pole position in the playoff race, the Spoked B skaters were able to play good, sound, fundamental defensive hockey in front of a red-hot goaltender in Tim Thomas. With defense as their bedrock, Wheeler and the B’s did just enough offensively to overthrow Lundqvist and the Blueshirts. Solid defense, superb goaltending and offense when the opportunity presents itself — it sounds like the perfect postseason cocktail.

“Today’s game was, the way it was played was no surprise for me.  You’ve got a team on the other side battling to make the playoffs, playing with some desperation, so there was no way in the world we were going to run away with this game,” said B’s coach Claude Julien. “This was our third game in five nights, and it’s been a pretty emotional week as well.  I think the fact that we still were able to play well enough to win, we were still good enough to protect that lead, and I think those are all good signs of our team being able to play in those situations.”

The Rangers/Bruins Saturday battle  is what playoff hockey is all about, and it appears that the exact kind of challenge could be setting up between two ancient hockey rivals that use D-zone responsibility and situational offense as the foundation for everything else.

Some Bruins’ players were also aware of the galvanizing effect it can have on a hockey club when every game at the end of the regular season is paramount for simple playoff survival — like the scrapping Rangers — and that kind of energetic momentum can piggyback right over into an opening round playoff series. The Black and Gold players know this because it’s exactly the kind of “Mo” train the Bruins utilized to nearly derail the top-seeded Canadiens last season.

“ I think (playing against the Rangers) in that kind of matchup it’s going to be a tight, hard forecheck with a lot of hitting,” said Patrice Bergeron. “They’re a great team with great skating and a lot of talent. If we do face them we’re going to have be ready to match that. There isn’t any one team that’s not good, but they’re coming in with a lot of emotion to make it (into the playoffs) and we would have to match that.”

The Black and Gold finally got to enjoy their just desserts this afternoon, however, when the shutout victory clinched the top spot in the Eastern Conference, and sets up a date with one of two likely foes in the first round: the aforementioned Rangers or hated Montreal Canadiens. It appears that the Florida Panthers are sinking down into the Everglades, and Boston will face a worthy first round foe.

There aren’t many that need their playoff dossiers filled up when it comes to the hated Habs, but a postseason showdown with the Blueshirts could regularly evoke the same kind of hatred, enmity and on-ice sparks that erupted in the third period between Sean Avery and Tim Thomas. A quick recap for those that might have missed it: long after the whistle had blown and players started retreating to their respective bench for a TV timeout, Avery made his way from behind the Boston net and — with the B’s goaltender on one knee with his back turned – struck Thomas in the back of the helmet with the blade of his stick while passing by. According to Thomas, Avery did it with enough force that the fiery B’s netminder knew it was no “accident.” That hunch was confirmed when he saw Avery’s #16 skate in front of him right after the contact. 

Avery turned back quickly after hitting Thomas and then headed toward center ice, but the B’s goaltender sprinted after the New York agitator with thoughts of taking a slash at the back of his legs. Thomas thought better of it, and instead gave Avery a forceful shove from behind. Then Thomas whirled around and clobbered an approaching Fredrik Sjorstrom with a right hand for good measure. Here’s incident courtesy of youtube, sure to replayed for years.

The Avery act and Thomas response resulted in matching penalties, but it also could become the playoff prelude to a sure-to-be entertaining first round showdown between the B’s and Rangers. Tim Thomas, for one, would be amped and ready for it.

“I really like the fact that we kept our composure and got the win there,” said Thomas. “That’s the key.  When you react, you fall a little bit into exactly what he wants you to do, but if you can react and not have it affect your game, then he didn’t do his job, and it didn’t work.”

Is Thomas ready for a potential seven game series against the Rangers where low-scoring affairs would put all the pressure his way, and Avery would be attempting to get into his head for a 60 full minutes — even during the once-sacred TV timeouts – each and every night?

“Bring it on,” said Thomas.

It’s not tough to imagine that the rest of his Bruins’ teammates feel the exact same away.

Injury Ward: Shawn Thornton, Phil Kessel and Aaron Ward all missed the game with injuries, and Andrew Ference had to leave the game in the second period after suffering an injury. Ference will be evaluated, and his status updated on Monday. The flexibility of players like Steve Montador and Matt Hunwick helped soften the blow of Ference’s injury on Saturday.

Player of the Game: After signing a four-year deal and pitching a 31-save shutout against the Rangers, Thomas had already wrapped up POTG honors, but he cinched it when he created another Tank moment by chasing after Sean Avery like some kind of rabid puck-stopper. Thomas’ spirit and abilities are a natural fit for this city and this hockey team, and he’ll need to be in the middle of the action if Boston does indeed face New York in the first round.

Goat Horns: Once again Sean Avery acts up, and once again his team leaves the Garden a loser. Bonus goat horns for Lundqvist’s postseason comments where he said that Thomas “overreacted” to the Avery cheap shot.

“He looks like a pretty strong guy.  When he goes after one of our guys I have to do my job.  I looked at the bench and wanted to get the ok to go over but it is a very important time,” said Lundqvist. “You don’t want to take any chances with suspensions or whatever you can get.  I think he overreacted.”

Turning Point: Marc Savard was whistled for a contested cross-checking penalty following L’Affaire Thomas/Avery, and it appeared the Rangers would have a good shot of getting a point in a then 1-0 game. Instead Thomas quickly regained his composure, made a few key stops during the PP and then rode out his fifth shutout of the season.

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Sounds of the game… Won’t be fooled again

04.04.09 at 4:47 pm ET
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Bruins head coach Claude Julien was having none of Sean Avery’s antics.

He knew what the agitator of all agitators in the NHL was trying to do to his goalie. That’s why he kept a close eye on him as he gave a little whack to the back of Tim Thomas’ head during a time out with 5:24 remaining in Boston’s 1-0 win over the New York Rangers Saturday at the Garden.

“For me, it’s just that you have to keep an eye on this guy all the time, even after whistles because when he did that, he looked around to see if anyone was looking,” Julien said. “He’s an expert at that and that’s what he tries to do so it’s important for the referees, when he’s on the ice after whistles, to keep an eye on him because you know he’s going to do something.”

Julien also wasn’t surprised when he goalie took off after Avery toward center ice and gave him a roundhouse, which got the crowd into a frenzy.

“Personally, a coach never likes to see his goaltender get in those situations,” Julien said. “Do I agree with it? no. But Timmy’s emotional and by that time, it’s too late.”

Then there’s the take of the man himself.

“It’s a TV timeout,” Thomas said. “It’s an unwritten rule that basically nothing happens during a TV timeout. I’m stretching there, and Avery comes by, and I get hit in the head with a stick. You look up and you see who it is, and you’re like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

It was no joke to Thomas and the Bruins, who kept their composure and held on for the win that sealed the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the Bruins.

“I really like the fact that we kept our composure and got the win there,” Thomas said. “That’s the key. When you react, you fall little bit into exactly what he wants you to do, but if you can react and not have it affect your game, then he didn’t do his job, and it didn’t work.”

Marc Savard was called for a cross-check moments later, forcing the Bruins to kill a 4-on-3 after Thomas and Avery were called for roughing penalties. And they did.

As for Avery, reporters tried to approach him but they were told by the Rangers P.R. that he wasn’t talking. One of the reporters fired back, ‘He can answer for himself.’

On Saturday, it was Thomas who had the answers.

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Bruins still holding to one-goal lead in defense-fest

04.04.09 at 2:03 pm ET
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16:51: Big body shot by Milan Lucic on Markus Naslund at the blueline. Naslund immediately tumbled to the ground amid oohs and aahs from the Looch-friendly crowd.

Dennis Wideman blocked a shot earlier in the third and fell to the ice in immediate pain. Wideman, who looked as if he took the shot off his arm or wrist, skated off in pain, but is now back on the ice without missing a beat. Wideman is easily one of the toughest guys on the team when it comes to playing through pain.

It’s official: the Giant Jack Edwards head is back in the house again. According to my personal stats, the Bruins are undefeated since one industrious fan took to bringing a gigantic, cardboard cutout of Jack Edwards’ head to the balcony section.

12:53: After some sleepy action in the first and second, things are ramping up in the third. Great Lundqvist save on a Lucic breakaway bid on one end, and then a similarly solid glove save on Nikolai Zherdev in Boston’s end. Thomas has 23 saves on the day.

10:01: We have pipe. Rangers winger Lauri Korpikoski slammed the left post with a bid from the left faceoff circle, and the B’s remain in the lead. The puck bounced all the way back toward the blue line after ringing iron.

9:49: Holding penalty on Krejci. First PP opportunity for the Rangers.

8:34: Solid saves on Rozsival and Gomez by Thomas during the penalty kill.

6:35: Another wide right by Michael Ryder from the high slot. Great feed by Lucic to set things up. Ryder has appeared a bit off with his shot as of late.

5:24: Avery at it again. It appears that he hit Thomas in the back of his head with the stick well after the whistle blew. Then Thomas chased after Avery at center ice and clocked him with a right. Fredrik Sjorstrom then went after Thomas, the B’s goaltender turned around and slammed Sjorstrom in the face with another right.  Matching penalties for Avery and Thomas as a result. Now, that was Old Time Hockey!

The Bruins beat the Rangers 1-0 and Tim Thomas celebrates his extension with a shutout and Sean Avery beatdown at the TD Banknorth Garden. Bruins clinch top spot in the Eastern Conference with win.

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Ference injured, won’t return to game

04.04.09 at 2:00 pm ET
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Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference was injured in the second period of this afternoon’s game, the the Boston Bruins just announced that he won’t be returning to this afternoon’s game against the Rangers.

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Bruins still holding on a one-goal advantage

04.04.09 at 1:09 pm ET
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17:56: Apparently the new contract has given Tim Thomas a lot more confidence to venture out and play the puck as he narrowly avoided insult and injury when Rangers and Bruins skaters came crashing just outside the right corner at the same time. Thomas was able to recover and there was no harm on the play, but it did show the really uncertain area of Thomas’ game. He’s improved, but he’ll never be the surest puckhandler in the world.

No antics from Sean Avery as of yet.

13:00: On cue Avery started pulling the stunt with Thomas where he tries to block the goalie’s view in front of the net. Then after the shift was over, the Bruins Faithful delivered a pretty strong chant of “Avery (Sounds like stinks, but isn’t stinks)”

11:14: Weird blue line tip by Chris Drury that ended up gaining steam as it sped in on Tim Thomas. It handcuffed the B’s goalie a bit, but he was able to block it with his body.

9:48: Great save by Thomas on an odd man rush by Avery and Ryan Callahan that ended with Thomas slapping away Callahan’s strong bid with his glove as he split down into the Thomas version of the butterfly.

6:51: Dismissive flip of the glove by Thomas on an Avery wrist shot from the left faceoff circle. He’s looked sharp on what’s essentially turned into Tim Thomas Day here at the Garden.

There isn’t a great of urgency being shown by the New York Rangers this afternoon. Surprising given where they are in the playoff standings.

3:48: Great goaltending play by Lundqvist during a Boston flurry in front of the net. He managed to get a piece of Stephane Yelle’s wraparound bid, and then blocked a wide open Dennis Wideman blast from the right faceoff circle when Yelle zipped the rebound back through the open slot area.

1:14: Tim Thomas is playing big in the nets today, the broken record theme for the afternoon. Scott Gomez found Wade Redden taking a B-line for the net after hopping over the boards, but Thomas absorbed the puck amid heavy traffic in front of the net.

00:01.9: There’s some juicy Rangers/Bruins pre-playoff action. Chara smashes Avery into the boards by the penalty boxes, and then Avery goes down in a heap with no penalty called. Paul Mara comes calling for Chara and there’s some extended pushing-and-shoving between Chara, Mara and Shane Hnidy, who took issue with Mara getting involved. Penalties to both Mara and Chara as a result. Should be an entertaining third period.

The Bruins are still leading the Rangers by a tight 1-0 score after two full periods at the Garden.

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Big Wheels gives the Bruins a 1-0 lead

04.04.09 at 12:21 pm ET
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16:06: Paul Mara is in the penalty box at the Garden. This must be a flashback to to the Dave Lewis Error. B’s get the first PP opportunity against the eighth-seeded Rangers, who would face the Bruins if the playoffs started today.

13:38: A pair of near-missed for the Bruins as Ryder just missed on a tip in front of the net earlier, and Chuck Kobasew couldn’t get any wood on a Milan Lucic pass sliding in front of the crease. Good pressure by the Bruins, and no Sean Avery antics as of yet.

With a break in the action: during a pregame awards ceremony, Marc Savard won the Dufresne Trophy as the best Bruins player on home ice this season, Milan Lucic won the Eddie Shore Award given by the Gallery Gods, Aaron Ward won the John P. Buczyk Award for greatest charitable contributions, and Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard respectively won the Bruins Three Stars Awards.

10:56: Don’t look know, but Blake Wheeler is heating up again. Wheeler broke up the right side, but then slowed things down and passed the puck. Eventually it came back to him at the right point and Wheeler ripped a slap shot that passed right through Henrik Lundqvist’s pads. Goal number 21 for Wheeler, with assists to Axelsson and Wideman.

6:15: Good defense by Mara to break up a potential 2-on-1 with Wheeler and Marc Savard. Wheeler again came bombing down the right side after a great cross-ice breakout from Savard, and attempted to get the puck back to his center. Mara stretched out and broke things up though.

4:45: Markus Naslund picked up a loose puck at Zdeno Chara’s feet in front of the Boston net, wheeled around the towering D-man and got a free shot at Thomas. The B’s goaltender moved right along with Naslund across the crease and smothered the shot quickly.

1:58: Great example of Matt Hunwick making something happen. The young defenseman carried the puck deep into othe right corner, quickly spinned off a defender and then whistled a pass toward the net with Milan Lucic battling for position in front. The puck deflected off Lundqvist’s stick and bounced away toward the corner.

Michael Ryder closed out the period by missing high on a breakaway bid in the closing seconds.

The Bruins have taken a 1-0 lead on the Rangers after one full period of play at the TD Banknorth Garden.

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Today is a day to celebrate the greatness of Tim Thomas

04.04.09 at 12:09 pm ET
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The Tank playoff beard should be coming in the next couple of weeks

The Tank playoff beard should be coming in the next couple of weeks

There was a great deal of talk about persevering, unorthodox goaltending and his age — he’ll be 35 year of age in a matter of weeks — but Saturday morning was clearly the exact right moment to celebrate the classic American success story that is Tim Thomas.

The B’s goaltender was the son of a salesman growing up in hardscrabble Flint, Michigan — a guy that was never handed anything during his entire career and was taught work ethic and stick-to-itiveness by his parents. Not at the University of Vermont where he became an All-American goaltender, and not later on in the nine stops along his minor league/European odyssey that included stints in both the Finnish and Swedish Elite Leagues along with traditional minor league stops like the ECHL and the defunct Colonial Hockey League. 

It’s about a goaltender that’s fit well within the long, storied tradition of Bruins goaltenders from Tiny Thompson to Andy Moog and Pete Peeters. After recently watching the Original Six History of the Bruins DVD and being reintroduced to so many great B’s goalies from the past, it was clear that Thomas is now up in that pantheon with the rest of the Black and Gold puckstopping legends. The fact that he didn’t crack the NHL until after the age of 30 will just another part of his legendary story.

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli admitted that he had a bit of a preconceived idea about Thomas’ ultimate ceiling in terms of talent prior to coming to Boston, but that changed when he saw the netminder’s high-wire acrobatic act between the pipes on a nightly basis. Instead of grading out a goalie that was constantly out of position and seemed to always be scrambling for a recovery, he saw an incredible athlete that could just flat out perform his No. 1 duty guarding the B’s cage: stop the puck.

“When we talk about the Tim Thomas story, we talk about perseverance over a long period of time, we talk about a long journey, and we talk about an unorthodox , hybrid style,” said Chiarelli. “But what sometimes gets lost is his uncanny ability to stop the puck. That’s why we’ve extended him.”

That second impression culminated in a four-year contract for a reported $20 million that Thomas made official on Friday, and talked about along with Chiarelli — the man that was playing point during the long negotiations – on Saturday morning prior to the Bruins/Rangers tilt.

Chiarelli admitted that Thomas’ age (he’ll turn 39 in the final days of the four-year pact) was a consideration, but that two things mitigated his status as a bit of a middle-aged goalie: there are many goalies still close to their puck-stopping primes in their mid-to-late 30′s and Thomas is relatively fresh after not entering the NHL grind until he had already crossed the 30 years-old threshold. In Chiarelli’s eyes, paying all those dues in Europe and the minors are now benefitting the “Tank.”

“I’m very happy to be staying in Boston for the next four years,” said Thomas, who is leading the NHL in Goals Against Average (GAA) of 2.11 and a save percentage of .932 and putting the finishing touches on a Vezina Trophy-worthy season. “With free agency potentially coming up this summer, you think about whether you’d rather play somewhere else or you’d rather stay in Boston. After weighing things over and over, the answer always kept coming back to ‘Boston’.

“I’m very happy that this is done, and I think I’ve done a really good job of just concentrating on hockey throughout the year, even knowing that we’ve had our talks off and on,” added Thomas, who then went out and tossed his 12th career NHL shutout against the Rangers later on Saturday afternoon. “This gives me a 100 percent chance to just focus on hockey and leave the rest of the stuff (behind).”

Chiarelli said that the team faces some difficult decisions to make over the summer when Phil Kessel, David Krejci and Matt Hunwick are all restricted free agents and P.J. Axelsson also finds his contract up. There’s a near certainty that at least one big contract will need to be moved in the summer months amid an uncertain salary cap situation, and Chiarelli didn’t shy away from that part of his managerial duties. There could be a painful trade or two coming down the line because of the salary cap situation, but that’s another story for another day.

Yesterday was about Thomas.

“This is our job,” said Chiarelli. “We have to figure out the puzzle, we have to make decisions. I’d like to sign everyone, but we have to make decisions over the summer and look at the performance of our players. Then we do the math.

“We’ve been doing the math ever since I’ve come here and that’s a large part of the job,” added the B’s decision-maker. “What is important to the organization is that we have terrific goaltending for a long time, and sometimes you have to put side the math — not completely — and make the decisions like we did with Tim.”

Thomas will continue answering all the questions that dog him when the playoffs begin in a matter of weeks, but yesterday was one of those few days when the B’s goalie could kick up his skates and have a little pride at a moment that proved he has truly arrived.

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