New York entered that Jan. 21 showdown at TD Garden with just a one-point lead on Boston, but left having doubled its advantage after a 3-2 overtime victory.
The Rangers (36-13-5, 77 points) return on Tuesday for their second and final visit of the regular season, and they don’t have to worry about losing their grip on first place in the conference this time. The Bruins (34-17-2, 70 points) have gone just 6-6-1 in their last 13 games, and now trail New York by seven points. But that doesn’t lessen the significance of this clash in the Bruins’ eyes.
"It's a very big game," Boston forward Brad Marchand said after Monday's practice at the Garden. "They're obviously at the top of the conference and we want to catch them. They're playing very good hockey right now. We have to make sure we're prepared for that and put our best game on the ice."
The Bruins put together a solid effort the last time the Original Six rivals met, but far from their best effort. A major penalty to Andrew Ference in overtime proved especially costly, as New York forward Marian Gaborik scored with just 3.6 seconds left in OT for the victory.
"I thought it was a high-energy game, a physical game," Bruins center Chris Kelly said. "It was almost like a playoff game with overtime. Hopefully [Tuesday] is kind of the same way, and the outcome is a little bit different."
The Bruins have a game in hand on the Rangers and three more head-to-head matchups, including Sunday matinees in New York on March 4 and April 1, so they still have plenty of chances to catch them for the top spot. But that task will be quite a bit harder if they don't close the gap a bit on Tuesday.
That won't be easy, with the Rangers one of the hottest teams in the league. That win in Boston started a 7-1-1 run for the Rangers, who are 18-5-1 going all the way back to Dec. 17. They are in the midst of a run similar to what Boston put together from the start of November through mid-January.
The Bruins need no reminders about what New York is capable of doing, but they're more focused on continuing the climb out oftheir own recent slide. A revival that began with Saturday's 4-3 shootout win over Nashville.
"Everybody knows who they are, how good they are and what they represent," Bruins coach Claude Julien said of the Rangers. "I don't think that's really an issue. We're a team that likes to put the focus more on ourselves than who we're playing and how good they're playing. We need to look at ourselves, because that's what's given us the most success in all the years that I've been here. Nashville was a real good team coming in here, and all our focus was on how well are we going to play? And I think we have to do the same thing here against the Rangers."
The Bruins are hoping for another two points, but after their recent struggles, the process is almost as important as the result.
"I'm not necessarily talking about a must win, but a must good game is what we need," Julien said. "We need to be able to repeat what we did last game. That's the most important thing. We could have lost last game had we not scored that goal late in the game, and you know I would have said we're on the right track here because of the way we played. It's the same thing [Tuesday]. We certainly have to play to win, but at the end of the game I’m going to look at how we played."