It's taken a combined 99 games, but the two best teams in the Eastern Conference will finally meet Saturday afternoon.
The New York Rangers
, first in the East with 62 points in 45 games, will pay a visit to Boston to take on the defending Stanley Cup-champion Bruins, who have 61 points in 44 games.
The game (1 p.m. ET, NHLN-US) will mark the first of four meetings between the Original Six clubs, both of which have hovered near the top of the NHL standings all season.
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"I think everyone is excited for this one," said Shawn Thornton
after the Bruins' 4-1 win in New Jersey on Thursday night. "It's a big, big test for us. They're a real good team, well-structured, well-built, well-coached, and they work their butts off. It's a good test for us."
"It doesn't get much tougher than that, trying to beat Boston in Boston," said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist
following a 4-1 home loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins
on Thursday night. "They're a really good team. If you don't play smart against a team like that, they're going to make you pay. I look forward to the challenge."
The Bruins rank first in goals scored and second in goals allowed; the Rangers aren't nearly as prolific offensively, ranking 11th in offense but are third in the NHL defensively.
Both teams boast elite goaltenders, with the Bruins potentially starting reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas
against Lundqvist, who is making his case for the honor this season. Thomas is ranked third in the League in save percentage at .936 and holds a microscopic edge on Lundqvist, who also holds a .936 save percentage.
Taking it down another decimal point, Thomas' lead is .9360 to .9359.
Even if Bruins coach Claude Julien
decides to use his backup goaltender, it's not exactly a big step down from Thomas. Tuukka Rask
is 11-4-1 with a 1.61 goals-against average and .946 save percentage.
Besides the Bruins' League-leading offense, there's not a whole lot separating them from the Rangers.
"I think it's going to be a defensive game for sure," Boston's Daniel Paille
said. "Both of our styles are pretty much like that. And, I would expect it to be very physical. They have four or five guys that hit constantly. So, it's going to be an enjoyable one for sure. They've been hot all year as well, and they haven't lost too many games in a row."
The Rangers haven't lost three games in row since the first three of the season, but they aren't exactly firing on all cylinders right now. The same can be said for the Bruins.
Boston is 4-3-0 in its last seven games; New York is 3-3-0 in its last six, alternating wins and losses over that time.
The Bruins are coming off a comeback win in New Jersey, scoring three goals in the third period to win. The Rangers entered the third period Thursday tied with the Penguins, but wound up losing by three goals.
The Rangers have bounced back three times after their last three losses, and they'll need to do it again to maintain supremacy in the East.
"It needs to be a bounce-back game," Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi
said. "I feel like we've been having too many of those lately with a loss and a win and a loss. But it's the same old story -- we need to have a huge bounce-back game and it's against no other opponent than the other top team in the conference."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo