NEW YORK Its amazing how much things can change in a year.
Almost exactly 365 days ago, the Bruins held a tense team meeting in the bowels of Madison Square Garden after collapsing in the third period against the New York Rangers. They warned each other that an early playoff exit awaited them if they didnt get their act together.
Clearly they heeded the warning provided by that ugly loss, and a Stanley Cup was theirs after triumphantly coming out on the other side of the NHL fire.
Fast forward to Sunday night. The Bs had perhaps their finest win of the season, a gritty, 2-1, playoff-style triumph over the Eastern Conference champion Rangers at their MSG home. Not only did the victory give the Black and Gold their first victory over the Rangers in six tries, but it also clinched both the Northeast Division and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
In many ways it was the perfect ending to a season of ups and downs, and gave the Bruins the perfect booster shot headed into the postseason. They are 7-1-1 in their last nine games, theyve accomplished everything that was even remotely possible heading into the All-Star break, and theyre now able to rest, recharge and refocus with three games remaining until their postseason run begins anew.
Its indeed amazing how much things can change in a year.
We wanted to prove to them we werent a pushover team just in case we meet them later on down the road in the playoffs, said Tim Thomas, happily wearing a Division Champs hat atop his head as he spoke of the playoff message sent to the Blueshirts. This is a tough building to play in. Its dark. There are funny bounces all over the place. Plus theyre a good team; they play solid hockey.
Anytime you can come in here and get a win to wrap up the division, its a good thing. Theoretically we had plenty of time to get the extra two points, but why wait? We had a chance to seal it up and take all of the hope out of Ottawas sails. It felt good to be able to do that.
So great that Thomas once again couldnt resist taking a shot at the Madison Square Garden stage lighting.
The Bruins did allow 19 shots in the final period as the Rangers threw everything they had at the net in a desperate attempt to send the game into overtime, but Boston's stabilized defense had held New York to 15 shots in the first two periods.
Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin had recorded just a single assist and a minus-9 in the first three games against the Rangers this season, but they were on the ice for both of Boston's goals.
Thomas had been 2-6-1 in MSG over the course of his career, and clearly doesnt enjoy playing in the yellowish theatre lighting provided for the storied arena. But he made 19 saves in the final 20 minutes and seemed to have the Rangers shaking their heads by the end of the game. Essentially, everyone who needed to step up did just that, and thats what the playoffs will be all about.
Instead it was New York rushing to get shots off at the Boston net while trailing in a one-goal game and furiously trying to climb uphill a state the Bruins were very familiar with during the months of January and February.
Those mediocre middle months seem like a distant memory as the Bruins finish out their final three dress rehearsals, and get ready for the real season to commence.
Weve started playing really consistent hockey and that has us feeling good, said Dennis Seidenberg, who looked healthy after missing two games with an infected cut in his leg and scored the Bs first goal. It was really a wait-and-see game against the Rangers, waiting to see which team would crack first. That was our goal tonight: to get a win in the regular season, so we could send a message if we meet up with them in the playoffs. It felt good to get that.
There was a slight celebratory feel in the Bs postgame dressing room, but its not that a guy like Thomas was really looking forward to a divisional banner ceremony next season.
Did we win the division last year? said a quizzical Thomas. That answers your question: I definitely dont even remember that one going up.
Thats because the Bruins are no longer about Adams Division or Northeast Division banners these days.
Instead theyre about raising the Stanley Cup over their heads, or considering a thoroughly enjoyable regular season as a failure if its anything less. The Bruins had a warm, fuzzy feeling as they exited Madison Square Garden on Sunday having accomplished all of their regular season goals once the Presidents Trophy was far out of reach.
But the Bruins arent about warm, fuzzy regular-season feelings these days. Its amazing how things change in a year: its Stanley Cup or bust for a Bruins team that has nothing else to prove in the regular season.