BOSTON (CBS) – The Rangers’ 3-0 victory over the Bruins on Tuesday night at TD Garden proved one thing and one thing only: Nobody is catching New York in the standings. With less than two months to go in the season, it would take a monumental collapse for the Rangers to blow a nine-point lead in the conference and a 10-point lead in the Atlantic Division. With the depth and discipline of John Tortorella’s team, that’s simply not going to happen.
What wasn’t determined by Tuesday night’s game, though, was the final word on which team is the best in the Eastern Conference. Or, at least, which team will be the best in the Eastern Conference when it’s all said and done.
Without taking anything away from the Rangers’ two wins in Boston in the past three and a half weeks, they come with the caveat that the Bruins are playing their worst hockey of the season while the Rangers are playing their best.
Granted, the Rangers have been playing with that kind of consistency essentially since the beginning of November, going 34-10-2 since Halloween. The Bruins had a hot streak of their own beginning in November, going 14-0-1 from Nov. 1-Dec. 5 as part of a 21-3-1 stretch in the final two months of the 2011 calendar year.
By mid-January, the Bruins were 29-12-1 and looked unbeatable. Since, it’s been a bit touch and go.
They’re 6-7-1 in their last 14 games, unable to string together two consecutive wins in more than a month. So while the Rangers will have those two road wins in their back pocket for the rest of the year, the games will likely mean nothing should the two teams meet in the postseason.
And for the Bruins, the losses should be discouraging but far from devastating. While this season has its own unique circumstances – the ongoing Tim Thomas/Facebook discussion, the Nathan Horton injury, etc. – a mid-winter slump is nothing new for the Bruins under Claude Julien. In fact, it’s becoming an annual tradition of sorts.
In Claude’s first season in Boston in 2007, his team went from 17-11-3 to 18-16-4 in the matter of a little more than two weeks. They also went 2-5-4 for a stretch in March of the same season, but they rebounded just enough to secure the eighth and final playoff spot.
The team entered the 2008-09 season with expectations, and they certainly lived up to them early. They went 27-3-1 from Oct. 25-Jan. 1, sitting at 29-5-4 and looking thoroughly unbeatable. Then came February. And March. The B’s went 6-9-3 from Feb. 7-March 19, but they were able to right the ship in time to go 8-2-0 to end the season and finish with 116 points. The rough showing in the winter months didn’t stop the Bruins from claiming the top spot in the East.
Boston didn’t exactly fly out to a hot start the following season, but they were still a respectable 22-13-7 on Jan. 5. Then things turned for the worse.
The Bruins lost three in a row. Then they beat the Sharks in a shootout. Then they lost to L.A. in a shootout. Then they lost five straight in regulation, outscored 17-6 along the way. Another shootout loss to L.A., another regulation loss then two more shootout losses.
It was a one-month stretch in which the Bruins went 1-9-4. They failed to score more than two goals in 12 of those 14 games. It was as ugly as it gets for a playoff-caliber team.
Of course, being that playoff-caliber team, they won six of their next eight to go six games over .500. They lost Marc Savard on March 7, which contributed to a .500 record for the remainder of the month, but they won four of their last six games and picked up a point in one of them to finish the season with 91 points and the sixth seed in the East.
After making their acquisitions of Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley and Tomas Kaberle and going on the now-famous road trip in which the B’s won all six of their games, the Bruins won their first game upon returning to the Garden to bring their season record to 38-19-7.
Then, an OT loss to Pittsburgh, a 4-1 loss to Montreal, an overtime loss to Buffalo and a 4-2 loss to the lowly Islanders. It was a stretch in March that saw the Bruins go 1-3-3, and it came just a month after the Bruins lost three straight and four of five at this same time of year.
And you know how last season ended.
The point here is that the Bruins have no doubt gone cold. The impact of Horton’s absence reverberates through the rest of the lines, and the goaltending duo of Thomas and Tuukka Rask has dropped off just a little from the near-impossible pace they had going to start the year.
The Bruins may look bad (the fans booing from the balcony on Tuesday night at the Garden will tell you that), but they’re just going through the pains of winter that seemingly take hold every year.
“Sometimes those are things, if we had the answer, it’d be fixed by now,” Julien said Tuesday night. “But when you lose and don’t win as often as you should, it weighs on you, and somehow we’ve got to use this road trip here to turn things around. There’s no easy way out. I’ve never heard of an easy way out. Teams have had to battle their way out, so that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
It might defy explanation, and it’s certainly tough to watch. Just as assuredly, none of it will matter once winter turns to spring.