Three weeks ago the Bruins hoped to make a statement against the Rangers at home. This afternoon they will be merely trying to survive the Blueshirts at Madison Square Garden.
The Bruins have now gone seven weeks and 23 games without winning consecutive decisions, and they've watched the Rangers zoom to the top of the Eastern Conference, all but wrapping up the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.
Its been a difficult road for the Black and Gold, to be sure, with injuries knocking them down over the last two months. Nathan Horton and Rich Peverley are both still out with no hope of returning anytime soon. Andrew Ference (lower body), Tuukka Rask (lower body) and Daniel Paille (upper body) have all suffered injuries over the last two games with varying degrees of severity.
The Rangers have had their share of injuries and adversity as well, but they have seemed to get healthier and more confident as the season has rolled on. Theyre 4-1-2 in their last seven games and never let their foot off the gas pedal during the dog days of February.
For New York to get Marc Staal back just before the NHL Winter Classic was a huge boost to an already talented defensemen corps, and the trade deadline edition of John Scott gives them a stable of rough-hewn enforcers to rival the Big Bad Bruins.
In many ways the Bruins and Rangers are cut from the same blue collar cloth: hard-working with elite goaltending, excellent leadership and an opportunistic offense.
Familiar as they may be with the Rangers' style, the Bruins have a unique challenge on their hands Sunday.
This is a heavy schedule for us," Bruins coach Claude Julien said on Saturday. "Were going into our fourth game tomorrow against a really good team in the Rangers. Four games in six nights. Were going to be challenged again in all areas. Weve just got to suck it up and battle through it.
Just look at the stats: The Bruins are 7-11-4 against the Rags over the last five years while developing into one of the NHLs best franchises. The Rangers hold a slight 36-29 scoring edge over their last 19 games, and an amazing 15 out of those 19 contests have been one-goal games with six of them decided in overtime or shootout.
Plenty of that has to do with the elite goaltending, which is also the reason the Bruins havent scored more than three goals against the Rangers since a Jan. 20, 2004 win prior to the NHL lockout.
That was obviously before the Henrik Lundqvist era on Broadway. King Henrik has lorded over the Bruins with an 18-5-2 record to go along with a .950 save percentage and a 1.45 goals against average in 25 career games against the Black and Gold. Nearly every player in the Bs dressing room quickly rattles off Lundqvist as the toughest goalie to face in the NHL. It doesn't help that the Bruins offense has been shut out five times in their last 15 games.
Were playing a great team in New York, so were aware whats going on. Theyre first in the standings, said Patrice Bergeron. For us its about going out there and playing our game and making sure it happens. Its two huge points and theyre a great team. We have to match that intensity, that physicality, and play our game."
It would seem that another tight-checking, blue collar tilt against the Blueshirts may be exactly what the Bruins need to get back on track with little more than a month left to fine tune before the postseason.
PLAYER NEEDING HIS TIRED PUMPED: Mike Hutchinson has never played an NHL game and has a grand total of 46 games of AHL experience, but with Tuukka Rask going down to injury, the 22-year-old is being asked to fill in as primary backup to 37-year-old Tim Thomas. The 2008 third-round pick has had some good moments at Bruins development camps and during preseason games, but its a tall order for a youngster getting dropped into a pressure-filled situation. The Bruins have eight games in the next 13 days, including a host of back-to-back games. They'll need Hutchinson to perform at an NHL level if they hope to avoid burning out Tim Thomas before his rapidly-approaching 38th birthday.
DRESSING ROOM MANTRA HEADED INTO THE GAME: There are 19 games left so weve got to figure it out sooner than later. Time definitely is running out to get on a roll, but in saying that there still is time. Its up to us to figure it out. We definitely know that we have the bodies and guys in here to do it. Milan Lucic talking about the elusive winning streak the Bruins have been searching for over the last seven weeks.
KEY MATCHUP: Zdeno Chara, Joe Corvo, Johnny Boychuk, Brian Rolston and any other point shooters for the Bruins have their marching orders: Find a way around the Rangers shot-blocking defensemen. Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto are all big-bodied blueliners willing to throw themselves in front of pucks, and theyre backed up by equally fearless forwards like Ryan Callahan and Brian Boyle. The Rangers are third in the NHL with 537 blocked shots. Theyve been particularly adept at frustrating the Bs this season. They need to find a way around -- or through -- New Yorks tall trees.
STAT TO WATCH: 6 That's the number of shutouts for Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in 25 dominant career appearances against the Bruins.
INJURIES: Rich Peverley (right knee sprain) and Nathan Horton (mild concussion) are out for the Bruins, and both Andrew Ference (lower body) and Tuukka Rask (left leg) are also out. Daniel Paille (upper body) also exited Saturdays loss to the Isles in the third period and appears to be a question mark for Sundays game against the Rangers.
GOALTENDING MATCH-UP: Tim Thomas will get the nod against the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist. It's a match-up of the reigning Vezina Trophy winner against the goalie most likely to claim that award this season. After some struggles in January, Thomas has been better as of late, and has a .927 save percentage in his last six games. Lundqvist has owned the Bruins throughout his career and this season is no different. Hes 18-5-2 in 25 career games against the Bruins with a .950 save percentage and 1.45 goals against average. King Henrik indeed.