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.

Blakely: Game 4 loss shows just how much Celtics miss Isaiah

Blakely: Game 4 loss shows just how much Celtics miss Isaiah

CLEVELAND --  Down the stretch in Game 4, the Celtics were desperate for someone, anyone, who could slow down Kyrie Irving.
 
But short of that, Boston could have used an offensive closer, too. You know, someone like Isaiah Thomas.

GAME 4: CAVS 112, CELTICS 99

 

The Celtics have relied on the two-time All-Star to carry much of the offensive burden this season, but he was almost always at his best in the fourth quarter.
 
A right hip injury knocked him out of this series after 1 1/2 games. Still, Boston managed to win Game 3 without him and, for large chunks of Tuesday night, seemed poised to beat the Cavs again on their home floor.
 
But as much as Game 4 was a reminder of just how special a talent Irving is (42 points, 21 in the third quarter when the game’s momentum swung in Cleveland's favor), it also provided a clue to the clueless who thought the Celtics were actually better without Isaiah Thomas.
 
Defensively?
 
Absolutely.
 
It’s no secret that teams go to great lengths to try and use his 5-foot-9 stature against him. And as we have seen, the deeper we get into the postseason the more trouble he and the Celtics seem to encounter from a defensive standpoint.
 
But just as we praise Irving for being such a special talent, Thomas has shown that he, too, has offensive gifts that, throughout this season, have left many fans, media and defenders befuddled as to how “the little fella” keeps coming up with one big play, one big shot after another.
 
But as we have learned, he has been dealing with a sore right hip injury for several weeks. The pain and discomfort eventually became too much to bear and so the Celtics did the right thing and shut him down.
 
Without him, the C's are still a good team that on any given night can knock off anyone, even the defending champs.
 
But as Game 4 reminded us, they need Thomas in order to be their best.
 
When Irving torched Boston’s entire defense with jumpers, ankle-breaking crossovers, Euro-step lay-ups and free throws, the Celtics had no one to turn to who could maybe, just maybe, go back at Irving at the other end of the floor.
 
That's what Thomas does that makes him such a special, unique talent in this league.
 
He can score in a variety of ways, with the best in the NBA.
 
We saw that this past season, when he led all players in the Eastern Conference in scoring with a 28.9 points-per-game average.
 
Boston’s excellent ball movement and high assist numbers are certainly important to the team’s success. But to make a deep and meaningful playoff run, you need one or two guys who can just go get buckets regardless of what the opponent does defensively.
 
That’s not Avery Bradley.
 
That’s not Al Horford.
 
That’s not Kelly Olynyk.
 
You can search, poke and prod this roster all you want, and you'll come up empty when it comes to finding a player like that . . . other than Isaiah Thomas.
 
The fact the Celtics were able to avoid getting swept is a victory of sorts in itself. Boston’s coaching staff, as well as the front office, has repeatedly said that as talented as their team is, they aren’t on the same level of the defending champion Cavaliers.
 
And yet here we are four games into this series and the Celtics are basically a bad half of basketball away from being tied, 2-2.
 
It says a lot about their mental toughness, their ability to handle and navigate past adversity to give themselves a chance to be competitive against any team -- including the Cavs.
 
But their success this season has always been about the collective group, regardless of how many late-game shots Isaiah Thomas knocks down.
 
And while he has his shortcomings defensively, not having him available is going to hurt them in those late-game moments when they need a closer. It’s not a coincidence the Celtics were just 2-4 when he didn’t play during the regular season.
 
So as cool as it was for them to win Game 3 without Thomas, he’s still the straw that stirs the Celtics emotionally, bringing them to levels few think they're capable of reaching.
 
They were able to get by for one night without him, but remember this: It took Marcus Smart having an Isaiah Thomas-like game of 27 points and seven made 3’s, for them to win.
 
No one did anything remotely close to that Tuesday night.
 
They looked like the Isaiah Thomas-less Celtics, which is a look they don’t need this time of year.
 
Because that look is so not about winning.