Bruins-Rangers preview: Into the unknown

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Bruins-Rangers preview: Into the unknown

Lets be honest: nobody quite knows what to expect with Saturday nights puck drop between the Bruins and Rangers.

After missing the first four months of the NHL season due to the lockout and dropping players at varying conditioning levels right into a training camp that didnt even last a single week, there will be pockets of ragged hockey. It will start off fast, furious and intense and will probably devolve into mental gaffes, lazy penalties and labored shifts as the game wears on into the third period.

The Bruins might have a leg up on other teams after watching 12 players skate in Europe tops among the 30 NHL teams but both the Bs and the Rangers should be in the same boat as regular season play begins. Both Eastern Conference titans will be looking to make a statement, but theyll also be plenty of curiosity about what each team has out on the ice.

Were no different than any other team. You cross your fingers a little bit and hope that theres as much cohesion and sharpness as you can have at this time, and you hope you have more than the other team just like any other night in the regular season, said Bruins coach Claude Julien. Right now were starting at the same exact point after being locked out for months and then having a six-day training camp.

We just need to keep the game simple. Its the same when you come back from an injury or youre coming back for a new season. There are a lot of guys that arent 100 percent as far as having their hands, stick-handling or skating, so dont overcomplicate things and making it more difficult than it needs to be.

Keeping it simple will be doubly important for rookies like Dougie Hamilton and new team additions like Rick Nash in their first go-rounds with new hockey clubs, but that will be easier said than done once the bodies start bumping and the puck starts flying.

It might not always be pretty in the early going and it will be a stiff challenge for some players unprepared to begin games with NHL intensity, but it will be NHL hockey finally back at TD Garden.

That should be good enough for everybody.

PLAYER NEEDING HIS TIRED PUMPED: Milan Lucic faced plenty of tough questions in training camp after opting to stay away from the ice for long periods of times during the four-month NHL lockout. The Bruins power forward also was one of several Bruins players that looked a couple of steps behind in Tuesday nights scrimmage against the Providence Bruins. That is a difficult beginning for a big-bodied forward that typically is a slow starter in training camp to begin with, and puts some curious eyes on No. 17 to see where hes at. Lucic could quiet all of the questions by coming out and scoring a goal or two in the first game against the Rangers, and maybe even throwing fists with Mike Rupp to bring the house down.

DRESSING ROOM MANTRA HEADED INTO THE GAME: Its more a matter of being able to perform at a high level and being able to maintain it for 60 minutes. That is going to be a challenge in and of itself. You may see tonight that in the third period rather than getting better it gets worsewho knows? Is fatigue going to set in and are guys going to be smart enough to get off early enough to keep themselves fresh? These are all things that the guys need to realize.

KEY MATCHUP: Rick Nash will be skating with Brad Richards and speedy Carl Hagelin, so that most likely means that Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk will out against them with Claude Julien holding the last change. It should be a titanic battle between the brawny 6-foot-4 Nash in his first game with the Rangers and Chara playing with an edge after playing in the skill-heavy KHL over the last four months. The 6-foot-9 inch Bs captain is clearly looking to hit somebody, and that should fit in well with a game that will be played at a frenetic pace to start out. The expectation is that it will take a while for a guy like Nash to get used to playing with new teammates in John Tortorellas demanding system, but theres also little doubt hell be looking to make a splash in his debut.

STAT TO WATCH: 14 the number of games between the Bruins and Rangers out of the last 17 that have been one-goal decisions in tightly contested battles over the last five years.

INJURIES: Marc Savard (concussion) isnt expected to play this season. Arron Asham is serving out a suspension for the New York Rangers earned during the playoffs last season.

GOALTENDING MATCH-UP: Tuukka Rask is just taking over for Tim Thomas, but has faced the Rangers in his fair share of games over the years because his Bruins goaltending partner didnt enjoy playing under the different theatre lighting at Madison Square Garden. So Rask is 2-3-1 with a 1.83 goals against average and .939 save percentage in six matchups against the Blueshirts over the years. Meanwhile Henrik Lundqvist is simply dominating the Bruins like no other goaltender in the league, and is now 19-6-2 with a 1.53 goals against average, a .947 save percentage and six shutouts in 27 games against the Bruins.

Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

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Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

Avery Bradley was a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago. And Al Horford has been among the league’s best interior defenders for a number of years.

But as talented defensively as they may be, the Celtics are still learning how to play with each other as well as off of one another.

Injuries have slowed down the chemistry developing as quickly as some might expect. Horford missed nine games due to a concussion, and another game due to wife giving birth to their second child, Alia Horford.

And in Boston’s 107-106 win over Philadelphia on Saturday night, defensive chemistry -- not only among Horford and Bradley, but with all of the players -- remains a work in progress for sure.

Boston had a number of defensive issues in the first half which factored in the Sixer shooting 46.1 percent from the field while shooting 9-for-18 from 3-point range.

But the second half was an entirely different story as Boston’s defense picked up his intensity and focus level which would prove to be just enough to beat a scrappy Sixers team.

The Celtics (12-8) are four games over .500 for the first time this season currently have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland (13-5) and Toronto (14-6). 

And while the players point to a handful of games that they felt they gave away, Avery Bradley reminds all that the success of this team this season has for the most part come with key players out of the mix or limited in some capacity.

“We haven’t played that many games with the full roster,” Bradley told reporters after the win. “We’re still learning how to play with each other.”

Bradley pointed out a moment in Saturday’s victory where a miscommunication between him and Horford led to a defensive miscue.

Boston has had similar mistakes made on offense this season, too.

“We haven’t really been in pick-and-roll that much,” Bradley said. “Every single game we need to improve.”

And that improvement has to continue evolving on the defensive side of things for this team to achieve its goals this season which include being among the last teams standing in the East.

Doing that will likely mean Boston re-establishing itself as a defensive force, something that should come with time and experience playing with each other.

Horford, who signed a four-year, $113 million deal with Boston in the offseason, says it’s an ongoing process for all involved.

“I have to learn to play with our concepts, the guys have to learn to play with me,” Horford told reporters after Saturday’s win. “We just have to make sure we keep playing the right way, be more consistent with that. I feel like we’re getting better but there’s still some work that we need to do.”

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

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Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

The pressure that comes with a tight game in the fourth quarter can be a weighty proposition for some NBA players.

Then there’s Boston’s Isaiah Thomas who continues to save his best work for the fourth quarter.

Saturday’s 107-106 win at Philadelphia had yet another Thomas-like finish for the Celtics as the 5-foot-9 guard was at his most dominant state in the game’s final minutes.

Thomas finished with a season high-tying 37 points which included a stretch in the fourth in which he scored 12 straight.

“I just love the fourth quarter,” Thomas told reporters following the win. “I just want to win. Whether it’s making plays for myself or making plays for my teammates, it’s about making the right play. I get ultra- aggressive in that fourth quarter. That’s what I’ve always done.”

And his teammates appreciate how Thomas elevates his play in the game’s most pivotal moments.

“A lot of the credit is to Isaiah, how he was able to finish the game tonight,” said Avery Bradley. “He was able to make shots when we needed him to.”

And while Thomas knows his shots won’t fall all the time down the stretch, his fourth quarter mentality does provide him with a level of confidence that no matter what the defense does to him or what the score may be, he can swing the game’s momentum in his team’s favor.

“Some guys get a little tight, they get a little timid (in the fourth quarter),” Thomas said. “I embrace it. I want to be great. I want to be somebody my teammates can call on when the game is close.”

Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from Saturday night’s game.

STARS

Isaiah Thomas: There was no more dominant player on Saturday night than Thomas. He finished with a game-high 37 points along with seven assists.

Dario Saric: It was a breakout game for the 22-year-old rookie who led the Sixers with 21 points as well as 12 rebounds for his third double-double this season. Both his points and rebound totals tied his career highs in those categories.

STUDS

Avery Bradley: Boston’s surge towards victory did not kick in until the third quarter which is when Bradley elevated his play offensively. In the third he scored 10 of his 20 points on the night, to go along with a team-high nine rebounds.

Ersan Illyasova: He finished with 18 points which included a pair of three-pointers in the closing seconds of the game. He also grabbed six rebounds and two assists.

DUDS

Celtics first half defense: There wasn’t much to like about Boston defensively in the first half. The Celtics struggled to take away or limit Philadelphia’s only strength Saturday night which was three-point shooting. The Sixers nailed nine of their 18 three-point attempts in the first half in addition to hurting the Celtics’ transition defense which gave up seven fast-break points to Philly compared to Boston scoring just one point in transition.