Bruins are beasts of East
They blank Rangers to clinch top seed
For more than 45 minutes, it appeared that a first-period Blake Wheeler knuckleball would be enough to power the Bruins to their sixth straight win Saturday before 17,565 at TD Banknorth Garden.
All that could have changed, however, at 15:05 of the third period. Marc Savard dumped Rangers center Scott Gomez in the offensive zone and was called for cross-checking. Savard's infraction took place 29 seconds after Tim Thomas and Sean Avery were called for matching minors - the world-class agitator's hit-and-run whack to the goalie's head prompting the $20 million man to chase down the hated Ranger.
So with New York going on a four-on-three power play, Bruins coach Claude Julien leaned on P.J. Axelsson and Stephane Yelle, two of his savviest penalty killers.
During the first minute, Axelsson, playing at the top of the defensive triangle, anticipated Gomez's cross-ice pass to point man Derek Morris. Axelsson stepped in front of the puck, picked it off, and backhanded it out of the zone to kill valuable seconds. Once Axelsson went off the ice, Yelle came on and thwarted the Rangers again.
Yelle read that Morris was winding up for a slapper. So he hit the deck and blocked Morris's shot.
"I saw his windup," Yelle said. "I didn't think he was going to stop. It's one of those things, just from being around a long time. You kind of get the feeling whether he's going to shoot or not. I feel like there's a different windup depending on whether they're going to shoot or not."
It was the closest the Rangers and their spitball offense (2.42 goals per game, second fewest in the NHL) could come to threatening Thomas and the Bruins, who claimed a 1-0 victory. The Bruins clinched the Eastern Conference's top playoff seed and could face the eighth-place Rangers in the first round.
After the win, a shot of Bobby Orr sipping from the Stanley Cup, with the word "Triumph" serving as a caption, was displayed on a TV screen in the dressing room.
"With the four-on-three that we had to kill at the end, it could have turned the whole game around," said Julien, whose team has been perfect on the penalty kill (12 for 12) in the last four games. "Our guys did a good job. We continue to get better.
"We have our lows at times, and we've had a couple stretches of games where we've allowed a goal almost in every one of those games. But overall, we've been pretty good."
Last season, the Bruins clawed their way into the No. 8 slot in the second-to-last game. Now, they sit atop the East with four cruise-control games remaining until the playoffs, waiting to see whether the Rangers or Canadiens (Florida has an outside chance) will be their first-round opponent.
"We came into this year with more confidence and trying to build on what we did last year in the playoffs," Patrice Bergeron said. "I think we did that. We are happy about it.
"But it's one thing. Clinching the conference is a great achievement. At the same time, we're playing for the playoffs. We have to make sure that we're going in that direction and to be ready."
The Bruins didn't get many offensive sniffs, as the Rangers limited them to 24 shots. But as often happens when a team plays sound defensively, it took the most unlikely of shots to find the back of the net.
In the first period, Dennis Wideman joined the rush and cruised low. Wheeler rotated toward the point to fill Wideman's position. Wideman got the puck to Axelsson, who turned and saw Wheeler open.
Wheeler prefers a quick snap shot to a wind-up-and-fire slapper. Nevertheless, the rookie put a slap shot on goal, hoping it might bounce off goalie Henrik Lundqvist and squirt out to Savard, who had floated to the side of the net.
"I'm not really used to taking a slap shot from that high up," said Wheeler. "I just closed my eyes and let it fly."
Wheeler's end-over-end shot didn't hit anything in front, but somehow it turned at the last moment and beat Lundqvist for the game's only goal.
"It was probably the toughest shot I faced the whole game, so not really," said Lundqvist when asked if he wanted the goal back. "I can sit here and say I should have gone down and blocked the shot. But I reached for it like a normal pad save and it took a right turn.
"It probably looked cheap and like a mistake. But personally, I felt it was the toughest shot I faced the whole game."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.