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Bruins, Rangers appear at even strength

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 17, 2013 06:12 AM

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What do you say, Bruins fans? Three more in a row, just like that one, then on to the next series?

Not happening, of course. At least, not happening in a four-game sweep. Besides, our quota of improbable demands was met with the borderline miraculous comeback in Game 7 of the first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Maple Leafs. After that, it's best to be realistic for a while.

The Leafs were not easily dismissed, and the Rangers won't be either. This is going to have to be earned, stride by stride and shot by shot.

The first pelt belongs to the Bruins, who did some fine work in gaining an advantage in the series Thursday night with a 3-2 overtime victory at TD Garden. It was a win that was every bit as hard-fought as the pre-series tale-of-the-tape between these two similar teams suggested.

For the Bruins, encouraging signs aren't hard to find. It was the Bruins' third straight overtime victory this postseason, and they're beginning to flash those saving-our-best-for-last characteristics reminiscent of their run to the Cup two years ago, when they won three seventh games along the way.

Of course, that may also have something to do with who is winning the games as much as it is how they are winning.

Brad Marchand, much-maligned during the Toronto series, scored the winner 4 minutes and 20 seconds into overtime off a lovely pass from Patrice Bergeron. Bergeron, of course, broke through with his instant-legend performance in Game 7 against the Leafs, but this was his linemate Marchand's first goal of the postseason.

Marchand, a.k.a. the Little Ball of Hate, is popular among Bruins fans for his feisty style, a talented nuisance with more than a little stylistic resemblance to Ken Linseman. But until last night, this postseason hadn't exactly gone his way. The second line, featuring Bergeron and the enigmatic Tyler Seguin, struggled against Toronto until the season was teetering on the brink.

marchanttoddfinn518.jpgEven Thursday wasn't perfect -- Marchand appeared to suffer an injury during the morning skate, fortunately a false alarm. And during NBC Sports Network's broadcast, he was referred to by Pierre McGuire as "Todd" Marchand, presumably an accidental reference to the erstwhile former Oiler and Duck, Todd Marchant, whose greatest career feat might have been that he was an unstoppable force on NHL '98.

To see Marchand's Thursday end well, just as Game 7 against the Leafs had a storybook flourish by Bergeron, is to be reminded of how essential both were in the run to the Cup two years ago, particularly in combining for all four goals in the title-clinching victory in Vancouver. To see them thriving now is to be reminded of what can happen when they are at their best.

But the true stars of the game for the Bruins were the defensemen, and not the usual suspects. Oh, yes, captain Zdeno Chara was brilliant, piercing Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist for the first goal, tormenting Rick Nash, and logging 38:02 minutes of ice time. But with his usual defensive partner, Dennis Seidenberg, sidelined with an injury suffered after 37 seconds of play in Game 7, and veterans Andrew Ference and Wade Redden also out, the Bruins had to turn to three young blueliners, two of whom were playing in the AHL playoffs just a few days ago.

And you know what? They saved the day. They did. Dougie Hamilton paired up with Chara and playing the part of a veteran, carrying over his strong performance from Game 7. Though he's a certain future star and just 19, it's not that much of a surprise to see him play well.

But Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug, postseason stalwarts? Yeah, didn't see that coming. Neither has a regular-season goal in the NHL, but now each has a playoff goal. Amazing. Any other defensemen in Providence who want to come up and join the party?

Bartkowski got his goal early in Game 7, and the swift puck-mover was again superb Thursday night while logging 26:42 of ice time, third only to Chara and Johnny Boychuk (26.55). Is it possible that it will be a blessing in disguise that the Jarome Iginla deal fell through and he never did become a Calgary Flame? I'm not ready to say it yet, and I suspect you aren't either. But the kid is playing very, very well. Bartkowski belongs.

Krug, I fear, is never going to make it here, at least until he learns to stop shooting the puck on the power play. I kid, but man, wasn't it refreshing to see him come out firing on the power play early in the third period after the Rangers had taken a 2-1 lead? His tying goal came with 17:05 left in regulation, the first of his career in just his fourth NHL game.

Given Lundqvist's habitual brilliance – it's almost a surprise when he gives up a goal – and a shot-blocking defense that is more than willing to risk facial reconstructive surgery if it means the puck has been safely detoured away from the net, three goals feels like a Bruins offensive onslaught in a way.

It wouldn't shock me if this is the first Stanley Cup playoff series in NHL history to go seven games, all settled in overtime. The Rangers – hard-hitting, deep, disciplined – are about as similar as it gets to the Bruins in philosophy and talent.

The only significant difference is that their coach, the hilariously brusque John Tortorella, carries himself like a soap-opera villain, while Bruins coach Claude Julien looks like he stepped out of the 1930-31 Montreal Maroons team photo.

It's a fascinating matchup, this first Bruins-Rangers postseason meeting since 1973. And Game 1 did not disappoint.

Get used to it. This is how it's going to be between these proud, similar teams. Probably all the way through a seventh game. And not to get too far ahead, but you might want to prepare for overtime for that one, too.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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