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Bruins getting just rewards

Home ice a big benefit for gaining No. 2 seed

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / April 3, 2012
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In the visiting dressing room at Madison Square Garden Sunday night, Tim Thomas pulled on a division champions hat - a gray lid with a Bruins logo in the middle - after his team’s 2-1 victory over the Rangers.

The Bruins had earned the Northeast Division title and the privilege to open the playoffs at TD Garden. Tim Thomas Sr. had earned a new hat. Even if its original owner didn’t care for its generic look, save for the spoked-B.

“My dad usually gets all my old hats,’’ said Thomas. “I was looking at it. It’s nice and stuff. But can’t they at least give the divisions a name?’’

For their Northeast-clinching win, the Bruins were given division champion T-shirts to match the hats. Their real reward, however, is the No. 2 seed.

When the playoffs start next week, the Bruins will be at TD Garden. Home-ice advantage was very kind to the Bruins during last year’s postseason run. They claimed Game 7 overtime wins in the opening round against Montreal and in the Eastern Conference final against Tampa Bay - results that might not have taken place had the Bruins been on enemy ice.

“It feels good, especially after that long stretch of struggles that we had,’’ Dennis Seidenberg said of grabbing the No. 2 seed. “To come out of it, we’re starting to play better and consistent hockey again. It feels really good.’’

There was a time when home-ice advantage wasn’t a guarantee. Just two weeks ago, the Bruins were diving down the Eastern Conference standings. They had lost a season-high four straight games. They had tumbled into seventh place in the East, while the Senators had swiped the No. 2 seed.

On March 17, the Bruins halted their plunge with a 3-2 shootout win over the Flyers. It was the first of seven wins in their next nine games. Their seventh and most recent victory came against a club that had gotten the better of them in three previous showdowns.

The Rangers remain the class of the conference. But by avoiding a regular-season sweep, the Bruins served notice to the Rangers. If they meet again in the Eastern Conference final, it will be a nasty and brutish series.

“That was our goal tonight - at least get a win and send a message in case we see them in the playoffs,’’ Seidenberg said. “It’s a good feeling.’’

The Bruins, 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, had no desire to go limping into the postseason. Their four-game stumble featured too many shortcomings: subpar goaltending, leaky defense, an inability to score first, little push late in games. In all likelihood, the Bruins would have made the playoffs had their struggles continued. But they would have entered the postseason with little momentum and even less confidence.

Now, they’re feeling good again. Aside from the indefinite shelving of Nathan Horton (concussion), the Bruins are returning to good health. Seidenberg returned Sunday after missing two games because of an infected cut on his left leg.

Adam McQuaid has sat out the last two games because of a cut over his left eye, but he could be available Tuesday against Pittsburgh.

The Bruins feared that Tuukka Rask would be sidelined for six weeks after he suffered a lower abdomen/groin strain March 3. Such a timeline would keep Rask out of uniform for the first round. But Rask is ahead of schedule. The Bruins expect Rask to resume skating this week. If Rask’s recovery continues at this rate, he could be ready to back up Thomas for Game 1 of the first round.

Gregory Campbell didn’t play against the Rangers after blocking a shot against the Islanders the day before. But the Bruins have three regular-season games remaining in which the results are no longer relevant. Campbell and any other players who would benefit from rest can spend any or all of this week in the press box instead of on the ice. Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron are the leading candidates to get at least a one-game reprieve. Thomas probably will start Thursday against Ottawa, the most likely first-round opponent. But there is no need for Thomas to see action against the Penguins or Buffalo on Saturday.

“One game at a time. We’ll manage it that way,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “We’ll look at what’s going on. It’s a lot of things we have to think about in the next day or so. We’re going to try and manage ice time. We’re going to try and give some guys some rest if need be.’’

The Bruins recalled Anton Khudobin from Providence. The 25-year-old goalie will be available against Pittsburgh. Khudobin could see action during the final three games of the regular season.

If Rask is not ready to back up Thomas for the start of the playoffs, Khudobin will the No. 2 goalie. Marty Turco is not eligible for postseason play. If Rask is cleared for action, Khudobin will remain with the big club as a practice goalie during the playoffs.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.

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