- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- The Boston Bruins are heading to New York for a set of back-to-back games against two totally different opponents.
While the Bruins and the New York Rangers are two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and are preparing for the Stanley Cup playoffs, the New York Islanders remain among the cellar dwellers in the league and their season will end soon.
Even though the big matchup of the weekend is Bruins-Rangers on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, Boston will first face the suddenly hot Islanders Saturday afternoon at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The Islanders are 5-3-2 in their past 10 games and are riding a three-game winning streak that includes back-to-back wins over the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Rangers have already clinched a postseason berth and they’re the top team in the Eastern Conference. Before playing the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night, the Rangers had won 5 of the past 6 games.
“It’s kind of two different scenarios, but the same thing when it comes to how well they’re playing,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “The Islanders have been playing really well, and you see that a lot of times when a team is mathematically eliminated because there’s a lot of pressure that comes off those guys and they go out and all they do is play. They really play and want to enjoy the last few games that they have left and that usually gets the best out of your team, so they’ve been playing extremely well.”
The Rangers are playing well, too.
They’ve enjoyed success all season and the team is solid in every aspect of the game. The Rangers hold a 3-0 season-series lead over the Boston, posting wins of 3-2 (OT), 3-0 and 4-3.
“New York [Rangers] is a team, again, I thought we played really well the last time we were in New York, and to me, we should have won that game,” Julien said. “It’s a team that’s been good all year and they’ve given us our fair share of issues and we’ve yet to beat them this year, so both of these games represent a challenge for us.”
Madison Square Garden has hosted its share of heavyweight fights. If the Bruins and Rangers eventually face each other in the Eastern Conference playoffs, it will no doubt be a physical battle of monumental proportions. Both teams are playing well and will look to set the tone on Sunday night just in case these teams meet up in the postseason.
The teams are similar in almost every aspect, including goaltender.
Bruins netminder Tim Thomas has played a total of 57 games this season, including 17 of the past 18. He’s 8-7-1 during this stretch, but is 4-1-1 in his past six, while posting a 1.63 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage.
"It's fine," he said of the workload after Thursday's 3-2 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals at TD Garden. "I'm not even putting a thought into it. I'm just playing and trying to get ready for the playoffs."
Overall, Thomas is 33-19-1 with a 2.38 GAA and a .920 save percentage. Of the five remaining games, it’s likely he’ll play at least three of those in order to stay sharp for the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Like Thomas, Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has carried a heavy workload of late. He started his eighth straight game on Friday and said he’s ready for the playoffs.
"The most important thing is to finish strong and to build our confidence in going into the playoffs," Lundqvist told ESPNNewYork.com. "But again, looking down the road here, home-ice advantage could play a huge part.”
Prior to Friday’s start against the Canadiens, Lundqvist had a 37-16-5 record with a 1.93 GAA and a .932 save percentage in 58 games.
"This is what I'm used to, playing a lot, and I feel good," he said. "I'm a little more relaxed in between games because you're playing all the time and you're in it. Sometimes you sit out and you might over-think it. More importantly, I think we will practice a little less and be more about stay ready for the games. Right now, it's an exciting time."
The Bruins’ goal heading into the playoffs is to defend their Stanley Cup title. Julien is giving his players as much rest as possible of late, including the team’s second optional practice on Friday morning.
“I’m just looking for energy in the games,” Julien said. “We need that jump and our guys should know how to play right now. It’s about focus and being ready mentally and it’s about bringing your energy to the game, so we’re handling it the best we can.”
Since the Bruins and Rangers are already preparing for the Stanley Cup playoffs, both games this weekend in New York don’t really matter in the standings. If anything, Sunday’s game against the Rangers could be a preview of what lies ahead for both teams, so it should be a late-season classic between the Original Six teams.
BOSTON -- The Boston Bruins are heading to New York for a set of back-to-back games against two totally different opponents.While the Bruins and the New York Rangers are two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and are preparing for the Stanley Cup playoffs, the New York Islanders remain among the cellar dwellers in the league and their season will end soon.