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Bruins clinch top spot in East by beating Rangers

by John Kreiser
The Boston Bruins are the Beasts of the East.

The Bruins wrapped up first place in the Eastern Conference on Saturday by shutting out the New York Rangers 1-0 at TD Banknorth Garden. Tim Thomas celebrated the four-year contract extension he signed Friday by stopping all 31 shots he faced -- including 13 in the final period, when the Rangers carried the play but weren't able to score.

The Bruins' sixth consecutive victory give them 112 points, up from the 94 that got them the eighth spot in the East last season -- and a big jump from the 76 they earned while missing the playoffs in 2006-07. They will have the home-ice edge through the first three rounds of the playoffs, and have a chance to catch San Jose for first overall.

The Bruins now have a 51-17-10 record, matching the fourth-most wins in team history, a total they last achieved in 1992-93. They haven't won the East since 2001-02 -- after which they were upset by Montreal in the opening round.

"It's a credit to those guys," Boston coach Claude Julien said of his players, "because of where we were last year at the beginning of the year, where we were at the end of the year and where we are today -- there's a big difference. I think it's about being believers. Believing is one thing, but going out there and accomplishing is another -- and that's what they’ve done.

"I thought defensively we were solid -- we didn't give them a ton of chances. At the same time, we missed some pretty good opportunities."

The game could be a first-round playoff preview -- if the Rangers can hang on to eighth place. They have 89 points, two more than ninth-place Florida, which has played one fewer game.

"It was a 1-0 game, typical playoff-type game," Julien said. "These are great games to play in order to prepare for the playoffs."

The Rangers are still trying to punch their ticket to the postseason. They've lost their last two games and are 1-3-1 in its last five -- giving the Panthers and Buffalo Sabres a chance to catch them.

The Rangers' biggest trouble has been scoring goals. They were beaten 1-0 in both visits to Boston and have scored just 15 goals in their past seven games. They've managed just 191 non-shootout goals in 79 games, 27th in the 30-team League.

"I thought we did some good things. We just didn't score," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "We didn't score a goal, and you're not going to win if you don't score a goal."

One reason they didn't was the play of Thomas, who earned his fifth shutout and won his fourth consecutive decision, a span in which he's allowed just five goals.

"We had 30-plus shots," Rangers captain Chris Drury said. "He made some key saves at key times."

Blake Wheeler scored the game's only goal 9:04 into the first period. His slap shot from the right point ticked off the stick of Rangers forward Fredrik Sjostrom before knuckling past Henrik Lundqvist.

"I reached for it like a normal pad save and it took a right turn," said Lundqvist, who made 23 saves, including one on Milan Lucic's third-period breakaway. "It's a tough goal to lose a game on."

Thomas made what might have been his best save midway through the second period when he robbed Ryan Callahan, who was all alone in front. Thomas put his arm up to turn away Callahan's 10-foot wrister and had it hit his body. He also got a break midway through the third period when Lauri Korpikoski's blast from 15 feet out in the left circle clanged off the far post.

Thomas showed his feisty side late in the third period when he chased Sean Avery to center ice as Avery kept skating with his back to the goalie after swatting Thomas in the back of his stick during a TV timeout. He pushed Avery, then was hit from behind by New York's Fredrik Sjostrom. Thomas turned and swung at Sjostrom before officials separated the players, with Avery and Thomas receiving matching minors.

"I actually like the way he plays around the net," Thomas said of Avery, one of the NHL's best-known agitators. "He's tenacious, he gets in right around the crease and he's not actually doing anything illegal. I have no problem with that. But there are lines you can cross, and he has a hard time figuring out what those lines are."

Thomas was pleased with the way the Bruins kept their focus after the incident and the resulting scrum.

"I really liked how we kept our composure and got the win," he said. "That's the key. (If) you react, you fall into exactly what he wants you to do. But if you don't react and don’t let it affect your game, then he didn't do his job."

"I think it's about being believers. Believing is one thing, but going out there and accomplishing is another -- and that's what they’ve done." -- Boston coach Claude Julien on the Bruins clinching the Eastern Conference
While the Bruins can take things a little easier next week and let some of their banged-up players heal before the playoffs, the Rangers face a desperate last week of the season. They host seventh-place Montreal on Tuesday before ending the season with a home-and-home series against fourth-place Philadelphia.

Despite their problems, Lundqvist knows the Rangers still control their own fate.

"We're still in the eighth spot," he said. "If we do our jobs the rest of the way, we'll take care of business."

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