The Bruins are coming off a hard-fought overtime victory at New Jersey — but they are still stuck in the heat of the battle for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot as they welcome the Panthers on Thursday night. The B’s have split their last 10 and have been treading water, but things are looking up nowadays.
For one, Boston is now tied for sixth place with the Canadiens and Flyers at 82 points, but their position in the postseason is tenuous. The Thrashers sit just two points behind Boston, and the Rangers — assuming they can put together a few solid games in a row — have 78 points with six games left in the season.
The visiting Panthers can also count themselves into the race for the eighth spot, at least mathematically. With 72 points and a game in hand on some of the contenders, they could get into the race with six wins and some hockey voodoo, but it’s doubtful many people in Florida are counting on it. Three points separate Florida from the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, while 10 points separate them from the B’s. A loss in Boston on Thursday could all but do them in.
WHEN AND WHERE
April 1, 2010, 7 p.m. (NESN)
TD Garden, Boston, Mass.
Bruins (35-29-12, 82 points, fourth place in Northeast Division, sixth place in Eastern Conference)
Panthers (30-34-12, 72 points, fourth place in Southeast Division, 13th place in Eastern Conference)
HEAD TO HEAD
Boston has taken two of three against Florida, but every game has been a close and low-scoring affair. The Panthers won the first matchup in Boston 1-0 in a shootout. It took 65 minutes and three rounds of shooters, but since then, the Panthers have been less fortunate. Boston took both games on Florida's home ice, winning the second matchup 2-1. In the third, the teams went to another shootout before the Olympic break, but Mark Recchi netted a the game-winner in the eighth round of the shootout to give the Bruins home a 3-2 win.
The Bruins are fighting for their playoff lives while the Panthers are really only fighting for next year's paycheck. Florida is the second lowest-scoring team in the Eastern Conference, tallying only 197 goals this season. The good news for the Panthers is that the Bruins — netting 191 lamp-lighters — are the most impotent offense in the NHL. Even the lowly Oilers have outscored them by three.
The Bruins, however, have a not-so-secret weapon that has been keeping them in the hunt for a postseason berth: fantastic goaltending. Tuuka Rask and Tim Thomas have been one of the league's best duos, and when they are on, the Bruins can succeed with less-than-stimulating offensive efforts. In its past five games, Boston has forced its opponents to throw up zeroes three times — but if even one goal squeaks past the Bruins' human wall, bad things happen.
The Bruins have only won six times when they have allowed two or more goals, and only once since the new year. That was a 5-4 victory over the Lightning on Feb. 11. The Panthers certainly aren’t the Capitals in terms of firepower, but they aren’t often kept off the score sheet entirely. Florida has been shut out only once in its last 15 games, during an impressive performance by Colorado’s Chad Johnson.
The Bruins can lean on their netminders sometimes, but that puts the onus on playing near-perfect hockey. In Monday’s 3-2 loss to the Sabres, the B's didn't get perfect goaltending, and they didn't get a win, either.
"I think we played well," said defenseman Dennis Seidenberg after the game. "We had good energy, but those little let-downs were enough for [Buffalo] to win the game. If we don't have those, there is a good chance we end up winning that game."
Marco Sturm–Patrice Bergeron–Mark Recchi
Blake Wheeler–David Krejci–Michael Ryder
Milan Lucic–Vladimir Sobotka–Miroslav Satan
Daniel Paille–Steve Begin–Shawn Thornton
Zdeno Chara–Dennis Seidenberg
Mark Stuart–Dennis Wideman
Matt Hunwick–Johnny Boychuk
Cory Stillman–Stephen Weiss–Radek Dvorak
David Booth–Gregory Campbell–Nathan Horton
Rostislav Olesz/Jeff Taffe–Shawn Matthias–Michael Frolik
Nick Tarnasky–Steven Reinprecht–Byron Bitz
Keith Ballard–Bryan McCabe
Bryan Allen–Dimitry Kulikov
Jason Garrison–Keaton Ellerby
Tuukka Rask is 19-11-4 with a 2.02 GAA and a .929 save percentage. Rask has five shutouts on the season, including two in his last three starts. He stopped 27 shots as the B’s beat the Thrashers 4-0 on March 23, and he blanked the Devils 1-0 on Tuesday.
Tim Thomas is 16-18-8 with a 2.55 GAA and a .915 save percentage. He has five shutouts, but struggled in his last start, allowing three goals on 14 shots. Thomas was pulled in favor of Rask after just 26 minutes.
Tomas Vokoun is 23-27-11 with a 2.51 GAA and a .926 save percentage. Vokoun is tied for second in the league with seven shutouts, but he has been struggling lately. The Czech netminder has lost each of his last six starts and has been pulled in two of them.
Scott Clemmensen is 7-6-1 with a 3.22 GAA and a .901 save percentage. He has gotten the win in two of his last three starts.
Marco Sturm’s goal-scoring drought hit double digits on Tuesday, but Sturm still leads the team in goals by three with 21. Patrice Bergeron is second with 18.
Tuukka Rask's 1-0 shutout against the Devils on Tuesday lowered his league-leading GAA to 2.02, 0.19 points lower than second-place Ryan Miller (2.21 GAA).
Patrice Bergeron’s overtime goal against the Devils was his fourth game-winner of the season, breaking a tie with David Krejci for tops on the team.
Jeff Taffe scored the opening goal for the Panthers in their 6-2 loss to the Sabres on Wednesday, lighting the lamp for the first time this year. It was his first goal since the 2007-08 season.
Nathan Horton and Bryan McCabe both had assists against the Sabres, as they continue to hold the team lead at 33 apiece.
Michael Frolick scored early in the third period on Wednesday for his 19th goal of the season, good for second on the team behind Stephen Weiss (27). Despite trailing in goals, Frolick leads Weiss in shots, 204-165.
BLACK AND BLUE
Marc Savard is out indefinitely with a Grade 2 concussion.
Andrew Ference has missed the past three games with a groin issue. He did not travel with the Bruins to New Jersey and is expected to have offseason surgery. He has not officially been ruled out for the season.
Rostislav Olesz is day-to-day with a hand injury. He was forced to sit out Wednesday’s loss to the Sabres.
THIS DATE IN BRUINS HISTORY
On April 1, 1947, the Bruins honor legendary defenseman Eddie Shore by retiring his jersey. Shore’s No. 2 sweater was raised to the rafters, a well-deserved honor for the four-time Hart Trophy winner, who set a precedent for a long lineage of great B’s defensemen to follow.
"It's in our hands right now. If we worry about ourselves, we don't even need to worry about everyone else. If we keep winning, we'll be fine and we won't need to rely on other teams."
–Patrice Bergeron, on the Bruins’ quest for the playoffs
Sam Adams is celebrating with the Bruins on Thursday.
On Wednesday, the B’s added some young talent to the organization.
Florida is nearing an NHL record for futility.
The Panthers will be honoring Latino culture on Saturday.
The Pittsburgh Penguins continue to be hobbled.
The Habs can’t seem to earn any separation in the playoff race.
The Bruins have been hit-or-miss lately — stunning offensively one game, entirely stagnant the next. Smothering defense one night, free-for-all the next.
Coming off a great defensive performance against New Jersey, a letdown could be on deck. If the Bruins want to make the playoffs, though, these are the games they have to win. The Panthers already admitted in early February that they were preparing for a fire sale and shipped off many key parts, including current Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. Florida is a team with relatively nothing to play for, and if the B’s understand they are playing for their postseason lives, they should be poised to stifle any potential letdown.
If the Bruins fail to pull this one out, the red light in the TD Garden might not be triggered by pucks in the net, but by the fans pushing the panic button.