NEW YORK -- To get an idea of what a Northeast Division title and the No. 2 seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs means to the Boston Bruins, goaltender Tim Thomas captured the mood in the locker room after a 2-1 comeback victory against the New York Rangers on Friday night.
"Well, that's good, but it's not the banner we want," said Thomas, who made 33 saves, including 19 in the third period, to lift the Bruins to their fifth win in six games. "You want something else to go along with it. Did we win the division last year? We did? Well, I don't remember that."
Thomas' memory is understandably hazy -- the Bruins went on to win the Stanley Cup last spring after winning the division, the first checkpoint on what he hopes is a repeat performance this year.
For two months, the Bruins were sleepwalking through the regular season. On Jan. 12, they were 28-11-1 and tearing through teams like a bear rips through a helpless salmon. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Bruins' coronation as repeat champions -- they hit a wall, going 12-16-2 in their next 30 games and falling as low as seventh place in the conference.
However, in their past eight games, the Bruins have come out of hibernation. They are 6-1-1 and have outscored opponents 30-15 along the way.
The Rangers squandered an opportunity to clinch the top spot in the Eastern Conference. They needed just a point to win their first conference and division title since 1994, but will have to wait until Tuesday in Philadelphia to take another crack at it.
"You don't go into a game thinking about one point," center Brad Richards said. "It would have been nice to win. We all know what's at stake, but we've got three games left in the season to continue what we want to do here. It was a big game for getting ready for the playoffs; it was that type of game. Back to work tomorrow."
Defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, back in the lineup after missing two games with an infection in his leg, sparked the Bruins' comeback against the Rangers with a howitzer of a shot that beat goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to tie the game at 1-1 four minutes into the second period.
A little less than eight minutes later, Patrice Bergeron capitalized on a turnover by Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi to give the Bruins a 2-1 lead they would not relinquish. With the Bruins on a power play, Girardi tried to feather a pass from behind his net to Ryan Callahan at the top of the crease. Bruins forward Tyler Seguin deflected the pass right to Bergeron, who quickly slid it under Lundqvist's pads.
"We were struggling for a while, a couple months, getting a win here and there, losing a game here and there, but never really winning on a consistent basis that we're used to," Seidenberg said. "We're playing well at the right time. We just have to keep building and keep getting ready for the playoffs and go in rolling."
The Rangers had won the first three meetings this season against the Bruins. With these teams perhaps destined to meet in the conference finals, Seidenberg and Thomas felt it was important to avoid a sweep in the season series.
"It's very important," Seidenberg said. "The first three games, we were putting a lot of pucks on their net, but Lundqvist really stood on his head and they were scoring on their chances. They were doing to us what we usually do to other teams -- wait for the other team to crack. Tonight, we stayed with the game, played really solid defensively, and at the end, we got the win."
"It was an important win for a couple different reasons, but one of those is to let them know we're not a pushover team in case we're matched up in the playoffs," Thomas said.
Considering the break the Rangers received on the game's first goal, it looked like the script wasn't going to be any different this time around.
The Bruins won a faceoff in the offensive zone, with captain Zdeno Chara firing a slap shot from the blue line toward Lundqvist. But the puck hit teammate Jordan Caron and caromed out to center ice. That allowed Marian Gaborik to use his speed to split Chara and Seidenberg, track down the puck and snap a shot through Thomas' pads to make it 1-0 at 4:33 of the first period.
It was Gaborik's 40th goal of the season, the third time in his career he reached that mark and second time in three seasons with the Rangers.
Thomas went on to stop the final 31 shots he faced and hasn’t allowed more than two goals in his last seven starts.
"I feel like I'm in headed in that right direction," Thomas said. "I'm starting to see the puck through traffic and find the puck, and that's important."
In the second meeting of the season between these teams, the Bruins dominated but lost 3-0 at TD Garden because Lundqvist was in a zone, making 42 saves.
Rangers coach John Tortorella felt Thomas returned the favor Sunday night.
"We played a good hockey game. Thomas was the difference," Tortorella said. "He made some key saves at key times. It's the type of game, these games against the Boston. It's just that one little mistake and the puck goes into the net. They had six scoring chances through a three-period game and we end up losing."
With the postseason a little more than a week away, the Bruins are finding their form. Last season, they finished 7-3-1 on their way to a Stanley Cup. This season, they are 6-1-1 in their last eight with three games remaining.
It's reminders of last season's glory that make something like a division title seem somewhat insignificant to the Bruins.
"It's great to have it happen, but there's no celebration here," coach Claude Julien said. "We're moving on and our focus is not on that. It's on continuing to play better as we move forward here. The playoffs are a whole other story. This is a nice accomplishment, but at the same time, we're expecting more of ourselves."