Bruins beat Rangers to clinch division title
NEW YORK - Tim Thomas is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, but will likely cede his title as the NHL’s ace netminder to Henrik Lundqvist, the man who filled the other net on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
For one night, however, Thomas showed why he’s still as money as it gets when it comes to stopping pucks in significant moments.
The Rangers poured 34 shots on the Boston net, including 19 in the third period. In the final 20 minutes, the Bruins only managed three shots on Lundqvist.
Yet Thomas turned back all 19 attempts, including a sure-fire goal by Artem Anisimov, to carry the Bruins to a 2-1 win. With the victory, the Bruins clinched the Northeast Division title and the No. 2 seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs. When the postseason kicks off next week, the Bruins will start at TD Garden.
“It feels good,’’ Thomas said of securing the division crown. “Theoretically, we’d have plenty of time to get that extra 2 points or whatever. But why wait? We had a chance to seal it up and to take all the hope out of Ottawa’s sails. It’s nice to do that.’’
The Bruins have three more regular-season games, and Thomas will probably get one more start on Thursday against the Senators, the Bruins’ possible first-round foe. For the other two games, Thomas could get a final breather before he carries the mail in the playoffs.
Like every previous version of the Black-and-Gold rosters he’s backstopped, the 2011-12 Bruins are, first and foremost, about Thomas. When he’s as sharp as he was on Sunday, the Bruins can go head to head with anybody, including the Rangers, the Eastern Conference’s top club. When Thomas isn’t feeling his best, as was the case in his previous start on Broadway, the Bruins will have to scrap even harder to compete against the NHL’s best teams.
On March 4, four Rangers shots eluded Thomas, the Bruins losing, 4-3, their third defeat to the Rangers in three games this season. For several reasons, Thomas hasn’t always felt comfortable in New York.
“This is a tough building to play in,’’ Thomas said. “It’s dark. There’s funny bounces all over the place. Plus, they’re a good team. They play solid hockey.’’
On Sunday, the Bruins had no intention of being swept in the season series.
“I think this was a big win for us for a couple different reasons,’’ Thomas said. “First, it allowed us to seal up that second spot. That’s off our mind. On top of that, playing against the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference this year, I don’t think we had great success with them earlier this year. We really wanted to come out with a win, just in case we get matched up with these guys in the playoffs.’’
Aside from a Marian Gaborik breakaway strike at 4:33 of the first period, Thomas was flawless. He was technically sound the entire night, but sharp when it counted late in the game.
In the final minute, with Lundqvist (19 saves) off for an extra attacker, Anisimov snapped a shot from the slot. The puck whizzed through traffic. At the last moment, Thomas booted out the attempt with his right pad.
“He saved his best for the end. There’s no doubt about that,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “We’re on the bench. We’re seeing the puck going in. All of a sudden, that pad came right out and he made that big save. That was the save of the night.’’
The Bruins, down, 1-0, after Gaborik’s goal, kicked off their comeback in the second period. After taking a D-to-D pass from Zdeno Chara at the point, Dennis Seidenberg one-timed a shot on goal. Just as the puck clapped off Seidenberg’s blade, Patrice Bergeron cut in front of the shot, partially screening Lundqvist. That slight screen was enough for Lundqvist to miss the puck, which hit the back of the net at 4:00.
Later in the second, after Michael Del Zotto was called for interference, the Bruins scored the winner on the power play. The Rangers had control of the puck next to their net. But Bergeron plucked the puck away from Dan Girardi and turned toward the cage. Lundqvist is usually airtight on short-range shots. This time, Bergeron slipped the puck short side at 11:52 before the New York netminder could slide over and get his pad on the ice.
After the win, the Bruins acknowledged the victory by breaking out division champion hats and T-shirts.
“It’s great to have it happen,’’ Julien said, “but there’s no celebration. We’re moving on. Our focus is not on that, more than it is on playing better as we move forward here. Playoffs is a whole other story. This is a nice accomplishment. At the same time, I think we’re expecting more of ourselves.’’