After a shaky start, Boston dug out of an early two-goal hole and rallied from a goal down in the third on Sunday afternoon in New York. But there would be no third rally for the Bruins, who fell to the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers, 4-3.
In many ways, it was the strength of that effort that was the most discouraging aspect of the defeat. Throughout their midseason swoon over the past two months, the Bruins have been plagued by stretches of indifferent play and lapses in focus and determination.
That wasn't the issue on Sunday. Yes, they came out a little flat and fell behind 2-0 just over six minutes in. But that could be excused a bit playing the second half of a back-to-back set against a rested opponent on the road, especially when coupled with the loss of two more key players in that Saturday setback against the Islanders.
Still, the shorthanded Bruins overcame that early adversity and carried the play for the latter stages of the opening period and throughout the second. Boston dominated the Rangers, but came away with just a 2-2 tie after 40 minutes.
Outside of that shaky start, the Bruins did just about everything right. They stood up to the aggressive Rangers, holding their own in a trio of tone-setting fights in the first period. They got the secondary scoring they were seeking, with Jordan Caron the surprise catalyst for Boston's first two goals. They were still able to roll four lines effectively despite the loss of Daniel Paille, as Lane MacDermid slid seamlessly into that fourth line spot alongside Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton.
And yet it still wasn't enough. For the third time in as many tries this season, the Bruins came up short against the Rangers. Regular-season results don't necessarily foretell how a matchup will go in the postseason, but the Rangers are clearly the class of the East right now, and the Bruins have to be concerned with how they would fare trying to get through New York in the playoffs.
Henrik Lundqvist's play in the Rangers goal is looking a lot like the stellar netminding that Tim Thomas provided for the Bruins on their run to the Cup last season. Thomas, meanwhile, gave up four goals on just 17 shots on Sunday.
That wasn't the kind of performance the Bruins needed one day after losing backup Tuukka Rask to injury. With Rask sidelined indefinitely, the Bruins will need Thomas to take on more of the load than ever as they enter the busiest stretch of the season with 17 games in this month.
Much has been made of the Bruins' inability to win back-to-back games of late, a streak that goes back nearly two months to their last consecutive victories on Jan. 10 and 12. But Boston has also been adept at avoiding losing streaks.
Until this weekend, they had not lost back-to-back games in the last month, and have not lost three in a row since their early-season stumbles in October. They'll try to avoid matching that season-worst streak Tuesday in Toronto, where they'll face a Leafs team coming off a coaching change that helped Toronto snap a 1-9-1 slide with a win over Montreal on Saturday.
It's a different Ontario team that's the main concern, though. Boston's lead in the Northeast Division has been trimmed to three points over Ottawa, and the Senators can pull within one with a win later Sunday in Florida. The Bruins will still have three games in hand after Ottawa plays, but the margin for error to maintain their division lead — and the second seed in the East that comes with it — is shrinking.
The Bruins can't afford to lose their grip on that spot, no matter how hard they've been hit with injuries. They need to maintain the kind of effort they put together on Sunday. That intensity and commitment to Claude Julien's system is more than enough for them to beat most of the teams they'll face the rest of the regular season and secure that division title.
If they can do that, then they'll just have to hope they get enough of their key players back in time to have the firepower to match the Rangers if the Bruins get far enough to face them in the postseason.