Rangers-Bruins Sets Up Rubber Match

New York Rangers vs. Boston Bruins

For a while now when the Rangers and Bruins play, we usually get a 1-0 or 2-1 games featuring Henrik Lundqvist and Tuukka Rask. But thanks to an odd Alain Vigneault lineup decision and an unfortunate injury, Lundqvist hasn’t played the Bruins either time this year and instead we’ve seen Cam Talbot. But Talbot did something on Wednesday night at MSG against that no Rangers goalie aside from Lundqvist has done since Kevin Weekes on April 8, 2006: beat the Bruins.

Mike Miccoli, who covers the Bruins for The Hockey Writers and was also my freshman year of college roommate, joined me for an email exchange to talk about the Rangers’ win over the Bruins, what changes both teams could make at the trade deadline and Rick Nash’s incredible season.

Keefe: I can’t believe Pete Carroll did what he did and I can’t believe there was a parade down Boylston and Tremont Street right past where we watched one 10 years ago to celebrate a Patriots Super Bowl win. Ten years ago! I’m going to go cry now.

If you’re not still drunk from Sunday night or if you’re not still hungover from then, maybe you watched the Rangers-Bruins game last night? The Rangers won 3-2 and it was the first time they beat the Bruins since Game 4 of the 2012-13 Eastern Conference semifinals (May 23, 2013) and the first time they beat them in the regular season since Feb. 12, 2013. And they did it without Henrik Lundqvist.

I’m sure you probably could care less about what happened on Wednesday night at MSG since a regular-season hockey game in the beginning of February isn’t as meaningful as the ecstasy that comes with winning the Super Bowl, but I know a little part of you isn’t happy about the loss.

Miccoli: Going from watching the Super Bowl to the Bruins vs Rangers game on Wednesday was like going from riding a roller coaster that stops running at the last second (heh) to a merry-go-round. Total snoozefest and remotely stressfree. Did you know that the last time the Rangers beat the Bruins in regulation was on March 4, 2012? That’s almost three years ago!

So as you can imagine I was thinking, much like the Bruins apparently, that this would be a bit of an easy game. The Bruins had only one regulation loss in their last 14 games and would be playing a team they had dominated recently without their best player in net. See? Easy.

It wasn’t, as I’m sure you saw. The Rangers speed was too much for the Bruins to handle. You mentioned me still being hungover from Sunday night – no way. The Bruins sure as hell looked it, though. And while you’re right that it’s just a Wednesday night hockey game at Madison Square Garden in February, it’s still a big deal to the Bruins who are now the second wild card team, yet only seven points out of first place in the Eastern Conference. This is a weird season.

Keefe: Being the second wild card sounds bad, but unlike MLB where it is bad, it doesn’t matter in the NHL since home-ice advantage barely exists anymore. I remember going on a tour of the Boston Garden before it closed and there was beat-up wooden planks, which served as the walkway from the visitors’ locker room to the ice. I’m surprised players didn’t elect to walk in their socks to the bench and then put their skates on there. But now? Every rink pretty much looks and sounds the same and aside from oldies like Joe Louis and Nassau Coliseum, which are both on their last legs, they all feel the same. We need more small visitors’ locker room. We need to take away the glass behind the benches the way it used to be in the Montreal Forum. We need to teams to stop being so accommodating toward their opponent.

The Eastern Conference playoff picture is pretty much set. The eight teams in right now are going to be there in two months, barring a wild run from the Panthers and a disastrous collapse from one of the other eight. The only team the Panthers really have in their sight right now with games played and points is the Bruins. Imagine the Bruins missing out on the playoffs a year after being the favorite in the Eastern Conference and two years removed from a Stanley Cup appearance? I think that would make you quickly forget about Pete Carroll handing Bill Belichick the Lombardi Trophy.

Miccoli: I’ll take it a step further: there is still chicken wire, rather than plexiglass, surrounding the ice at one of the old rinks I used to play hockey at in Rhode Island. Forget walking on planks, good luck ever play a road game there.

The Bruins will make the playoffs. In fact, the Bruins might not even be one of the wildcards and could make it in as one of the top three teams in the Atlantic Division. I think I may have mentioned this before, but the one team that the Bruins should be concerned about is Montreal. If the Bruins were to somehow be the wildcard and play a team like the New York Islanders, they’d win in six games at the very most. Of course, it all depends on what happens at the trade deadline.

Due to their cap restrictions, the Bruins won’t make a big add, but as you saw last night, the defense has to improve. A second pairing of Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid is going to get lit up when facing other teams’ top two lines. Before, the need was more prevalent for a forward but as time goes on, it’s becoming obvious that a weakness of the Bruins’ is something that used to be a strength. Ironically enough, the Bruins could use a guy like Johnny Boychuk, but we don’t talk about that anymore.

Keefe: I would talk about Johnny Boychuk and take some shots at the Bruins trading away a key piece of their defense because of the genius of Peter Chiarelli putting the team in a cap debacle, but Boychuk is now an Islander, and we don’t talk about the Islanders here.

I never cared about the Islanders. They were just sort of there. They hadn’t been really relevant since the early- and mid-90s and have sucked for pretty much the last 20 years. Now that they have have been good for four-plus months, the last 20 years have been forgotten by their fans who have proclaimed the Islanders as the “Best Team in New York.” They have earned it to some degree by beating the Rangers handily in all three of their meetings this year and by leading the Metro for a good part of the year. But they will learn that title is made after Game 82.

The problem is if the Rangers and Islanders meet in the playoffs, the Rangers are effed At least I think they are. They aren’t a good matchup for the Islanders. The only thing working in my favor is that I hope the Islanders go 5-0 against the Rangers in the regular season and then they meet in the playoffs. As the 2007 Yankees taught me (when I begged for them to play the Indians in the 2007 ALDS rather than the Angels because they owned the Indians) is that the playoffs are different animal and eventually things will likely even out. The Yankees were done in four games, the Red Sox swept the Angels and then came back down 3-1 to the Indians and won the World Series. That Yankees team was the only team that had the Red Sox’ number and they never got to play them because of the Indians. The effing Indians.

You say that the Bruins could beat the Islanders and I don’t doubt it. I hope they play each other. Let the Rangers play the Penguins or the Capitals. I just don’t want to see the Islanders, Lightning or Canadiens early.

Who else do you fear besides Montreal?

Miccoli: To be fair, and even though I think they won’t beat the Bruins, I’m rooting for the New York Islanders to do well. I think they deserve to have a strong season after so many years of just being utterly awful. I think Boychuk is a big part of that culture change, though it was slowly getting better in year’s past as their core grew. But if I’m a Rangers fan, I’m nervous about the Islanders overtaking the title of best hockey team in New York, similar to how the Clippers finally eclipsed the Lakers in Los Angeles.

Aside from Montreal, I think the Tampa Bay Lightning pose the greatest threat to the Bruins. Of course, the two teams who would actually give the Bruins issues in the postseason are two teams they could likely face as early as the second round. Realignment is awesome! The other playoff teams in the Eastern Conference don’t present a problematic matchup to the Bruins as currently put together. What it is about the Lightning, anyway? I think the Rangers could beat the Canadiens again but even when I was talking with my old roommate about it, he said he feared Tampa most of all. Is it because of all of the old Ranger players on the Lightning roster? Callahan, Boyle, Stralman, am I forgetting any? In a seven game series, I’d pick Bruins over the Lightning just because old habits die hard, but I don’t know if I’d pick the Rangers.

Keefe: I don’t know why the Rangers can’t beat the Lightning or why they didn’t this season. They played all three games against each other in 18 days from Nov. 13 to Dec. 1 and the Rangers lost by a combined 15-7. But since their Dec. 1 loss to the Lightning and then their 3-2 loss to the Red Wings on Dec. 6 (the Rangers blew a 2-0 lead), the Rangers have gone 19-5-0. They have put themselves in a position that if they were to go 16-17-0 over their last 33 games, they would still finish with 96 points this season, which is what they finished with last season. Maybe it’s the Lightning that “lit” a fire in the Rangers? If they are to meet in the playoffs, I don’t think I could handle losing a playoff series to Callahan and Boyle. I would rather get swept by any other team in the first round than lose to them at any point.

Something I noticed about the Bruins on Wednesday night was how easy the Rangers were able to get in the offensive zone, and once in there, how easy it was for them to do whatever they wanted. Sure, they only won 3-2, but Rask made a few remarkable saves that kept the game from getting out of reach. Is it possible that the Bruins’ defense, their strength for the last five or six years, isn’t what it used to be? Am I right to not be scared of the Bruins the way I was in 2012-13 and 2013-14?

Miccoli: Absolutely. I think the Bruins are suffering from a bit of a transition this season. Zdeno Chara is no longer the most feared defenseman in the league. He’s still in the top 10, no question, but it’s very evident that he’s slowing down due to his age. Dougie Hamilton is in this weird phase where he’s in between being good and great at times. He’s the guy the Bruins will build their blue-line around going forward, and while Torey Krug is a strong puck-moving defenseman, there are still lapses in his game in his own end. And that’s it. Seidenberg isn’t a top guy anymore and neither is McQuaid (he never was, really). The Bruins have a top-pairing and then a bunch of No. 4 through No. 6 guys.

So I wouldn’t say you shouldn’t be scared of the Bruins anymore because who knows which team will show up for the rest of the season and in the playoffs. The team’s defense has been really vulnerable in their own end and that has caused opponents to really take advantage of them. You can look at the numbers and see that this isn’t the Bruins of recent years. Still, I think if they can add some depth come the trade deadline, things might seem more stable.

I asked my buddy what he thought the Rangers needed at the deadline and he said centers and talked about how bad New York was on the face-off. After watching the game last night, I’m pretty sure I could win a face-off against them. What do you think?

Keefe: The Rangers are miserable at face-offs and it’s clearly the weakest part of their game, and that’s obviously a big problem for any team, especially one expected to get back to the Stanley Cup Final and even win it. I say expected to win it since they lost it last year and now the only thing for them to do is win it. And the Rangers with expectations are a lot like the New York Football Giants with expectations and that’s not a good thing.

It seems weird that the trade deadline is nearly here because it feels like 15 minutes ago I was writing thousands upon thousands of words on why the Rangers need to trade Ryan Callahan. But here we are again with the deadline approaching. We are still a few days or so away from real rumors being generated and finding out exactly who is available, but the Rangers really do need to target someone who can win a face-off in a big spot, or at least give them a better chance at competing in the circle than what they have now. Who that is right now? I’m not sure, but I hope it’s someone.

I was wondering if you saw who scored the first Rangers goals last night? It was someone wearing number 61. He leads the league in goals with 33. I only ask you this because I remember you saying … let me find it … oh, yeah, this:

Here’s the thing with Nash: I think he’s one of the most overrated players in the NHL.

I didn’t just write that. You said that back in an email exchange on Jan. 23, 2013 at the start of the shortened season:

What do you have to say for yourself now? Rick and I would like an apology.

Miccoli: It took you five emails to address the NHL’s leading goal scorer. I’m almost surprised.

Yes, I did say that Rick Nash was overrated because, well … he was. Before the Rangers traded for him, he had only 30 goals and 29 assists in 2011-12 with Columbus. For comparison, Loui Eriksson had 26 goals and 45 assists in that same period of time. Loui Eriksson. Eriksson is a third-line player on the Bruins, but I digress. After that, he became a point per game player in the shortened 2013 season before putting up 39 points (!!!) in 65 games in the 2013-14 season. Lest we forget how invisible he was in the playoffs.

Now, he’s having a great season and should rightfully be in consideration for the Hart Trophy at the end of the year. My question is if he’ll be able to carry this over next season. If this habit continues, looks like he’s due for a bit of a drop off. Come back to me next year at this time when Nash should be the Rangers best player but isn’t.

Keefe: I was expecting a better apology than that. But I guess I will accept that for now. However, if Nash scores 50-plus goals this year with two other 40-goal seasons on his resume, I’m going to need a longer and more heart-felt apology to Ranger Rick and me.

There’s only one game left between these two teams now this season and it’s not until March 28. So I guess I will let you have your time to celebrate the Super Bowl win that was more of a Super Bowl gift and we can reconvene in seven weeks when hopefully the snow is gone, it’s 60 degrees in the Northeast and the Rangers and Bruins are playing for playoff seeding.

Miccoli: If Nash scores 50 goals, I’ll be sure to publish something about what a legend he is. At the very least, he’s more of a Hart candidate than that guy in Dallas who used to play for Boston whose name escapes me.

I’m happy the Rangers won last night. This third game really feels like an actual rubber match and that means something. Even though it took the Rangers three years to win in regulation against the Bruins, let’s hope Lundqvist is finally in net on March 28. The rosters might look different so if anything, this will be a better way to gauge just who the better team is this season. Plus, it’ll be a segue to the other Boston/New York games coming up this year.