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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.

Read More: Blake Wheeler, Sean Avery, Tim Thomas, Print  |  Email   | Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
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