– The Bruins and Rangers may be just a month into the shortened 48-game schedule, but tonight’s matchup between the two Original Six squads will already be the third – and final – meeting of the regular season.
The Eastern Conference foes split the first two games; in the season opener on January 19, the Bruins came away with a 3-1 win at home, and just four day later at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers took down the Black & Gold in overtime, 4-3.
The Rangers have learned, first-hand, how tough it is to play against the Bruins and are prepared for yet another challenge tonight at TD Garden.
“They’re a tough team,” said Rangers’ defenseman Marc Staal, following his team’s morning skate. “Every time we play them it’s close. They’re very talented up front, as well as at the back end, they don’t give you much.
“We have to be patient and be ready to play a physical game like they always are and we should be good.”
Rangers Head Coach, John Tortorella, was hesitant to talk too much about what the Bruins bring to the table, but he did express the respect he has for them.
“I don’t spend too much time watching them,” said Tortorella. “We’re just concerned about how we play. We certainly respect them, we know they’re well-coached. They’ve got a really good lineup.”
With both the Bruins and Rangers considered to be two of the top teams in the league, the early battles have created a bit of playoff-type atmosphere around the games. Though, Staal feels that the first two games having been played so early on in the year, made for more of feeling out period.
Now, he thinks his team – they have won two straight games – is starting to hit its stride.
“I think the first couple were really early on at the start, so you’re trying to work out that rust and get your feet wet for the season,” explained the defenseman. “I think that time has passed, webthe guys are starting to feel more comfortable with their games. As a team we’re just trying to improve and get better. We try to take our game to the next level and be a good hockey team.”
Bruins Head Coach, Claude Julien, echoed that thought, saying he expects the Rangers to be a much better group than they were just a few weeks ago.
“I think we know each other pretty well by now, there’s no doubt about that,” said Julien. “But this is a situation where early in the year, it can be very different from where teams are right now.
“Maybe in our case, we had a very familiar club – they didn’t. I think they’re probably getting a little bit more familiar with each other. They’re definitely going to be a better, harder team to play against.”
Part of the Rangers’ success over the past two games has been some new line combinations. The last time the Bruins saw the Blueshirts, Rick Nash was alongside Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, on what was one of the league’s top lines.
Tortorella, decided to split up the trio and since then his team has won two straight. Nash is now with Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin, while Taylor Pyatt slid in beside Richards and Gaborik.
“It’s been good,” said Nash of his new line. “There’s so much skill, seems like anyone can play with anyone here. It’s been good, we’ve been gaining some chemistry. It’s been a lot of fun to play with those guys.
“I think we’re playing a lot better. Seems like each game we’re getting better, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Despite the changes sparking the Rangers, Nash knows that facing the Bruins still creates a strong test.
“They’re a good team,” he said. “All those guys have been together for a while. They’re strong, they’ve got gritty forwards that can score. They have a lot of good things going over there. We’ve got to make sure we match their effort.”
The Bruins, meanwhile, see Nash, who leads the Rangers with nine points (three goals, six assists) as an extremely dangerous offensive force.
“He’s just extremely strong with the puck,” said Daniel Paille, when asked what makes Nash so good. “It’s hard to get it off him, he protects it very well. On top of that, he brings speed. It’s definitely hard to defend a player like that, with the skill level that he has. He’s definitely a player that we watch every night to try and slow him down.”