After tonight, the glorified exhibition season begins for the Bruins.
Sure, they’ll try to win their last three games of the regular season. And if things work out, they might even move up out of the third spot into second or first place in the Eastern Conference. However, that’s not likely to happen, even if they go 3-0.
The Northeast Division and first-round home-ice advantage are wrapped up. Even as they take on the desperate New York Rangers tonight at Madison Square Garden, the Bruins’ focus — as it has been in past seasons after the clinching was through — has to be on rest and health more than on standings points.
But at least tonight Boston gets an easy chance to scout a potential playoff opponent, as opposed to its last three games against the New York Islanders, Ottawa and New Jersey. All those teams have Monday tee times for next week.
The Rangers, currently eighth in the East by two points over ninth-place Carolina, could close out the week with enough points to finish as high as sixth. The Bruins already know a lot about the Rangers, who have topped Boston twice this season. It all starts with Henrik Lundqvist in goal (he shut out Boston March 26) and continues with a ferocious forecheck and just enough scoring to get by (maybe).
All those things were on display yesterday, as the Rangers beat Philadelphia in a shootout to maintain their hold on a playoff spot. As Larry Brooks of the New York Post wrote:
And that’s just who the Rangers were, Black-and-Blueshirts getting in on the forecheck, diving in front of shots, throwing their bodies around in delivering hits while at the same time having all sorts of difficulty generating sustained pressure or odd-man breaks off the rush. If you’re scoring at home, you’re probably doing slightly better than the Rangers, who have recorded a total of seven goals (not counting the awarded shootout winner) in going 2-2-2 over their last six games.
Basically, the Rangers of now sound a lot like the Bruins of 2007-08 — that is, a rag-tag bunch that needed to claw its way into the eighth spot in the East by season’s end mostly on the strength of goaltending.
That’s why if you’re a Bruins backer or part of the team’s brass, you have to hope the players that dress tonight can match some semblance of the Rangers’ intensity but don’t do it too much. Because by all means available the Bruins have to avoid getting run over by a Rangers forechecker or clocked coming through the neutral zone by a New York defenseman with the real games just a little more than a week away from starting.
The Bruins owe it to Carolina to give a full effort against the Rangers tonight. They just have to be smart about how far they’ll go to protect the honor of the game over their own well being.