BOSTON -- One of the top rules in the NHL players’ special book of things they are absolutely not supposed to do is to look too far ahead. And they for sure aren’t supposed to be speculating about playing a team deep in the playoffs with almost half a season left to play.
So no surprise no members of the Boston Bruins or New York Rangers were blue-skying about the possibility of these two powers meeting again the Eastern Conference final in late May in the wake of Saturday’s entertaining 3-2 overtime win by the Rangers.
The impressive tilt was the first of four matchups between these two Original Six rivals, and the pining for something more substantial between these two come springtime was left to the media and the fans.
Was there anyone at sold-out TD Garden who didn’t at some point think, “Hey, seven games like this would be pretty darned compelling sometime in late May”?
“It’s a little early to think about it,” Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist said with a grin, when asked about the possibility of the Rangers’ first playoff date with the Bruins since the 1973 quarterfinals.
“But again, they play similar to us. So the key when you play these types of games and this type of team is the battle level. Battles all over the ice, in front of the net, in the corners. I think we answered really well. They came out really hard the first five, 10 minutes and then we kind of settled things down.”
Lundqvist was terrific, especially through the first two periods, turning aside 32 of 34 shots on the day.
Saturday’s matinee had pretty much everything you would expect from two teams that began the day within a point of each other atop the conference standings.
These are two big, fast teams that don’t mind a lot of body in their games.
There were big hits, including a controversial play in overtime in which a speeding Andrew Ference, who had a goal and an assist, crushed Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh into the end boards 1:50 into overtime, earning a five-minute charging penalty, a game misconduct and likely a conversation with league hangman Brendan Shanahan.
The play led to Marian Gaborik’s power-play, overtime winner and marred what was otherwise a terrific statement game for both teams.
“It was an unfortunate ending to a great game,” Bruins head coach Claude Julien said.
Although Tuukka Rask got the nod ahead of defending Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas, who is expected to start Sunday against Philadelphia, this was a game that featured terrific goaltending at both ends of the ice.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it was Lundqvist who turned in the more spectacular outing, but both Lundqvist and Thomas will be at the All-Star Game next weekend in Ottawa and it’s hard to imagine that both won’t be on the Vezina Trophy ballot at the end of the season.
Over the course of a seven-game series, if it comes to that in the spring, it might represent one of the great goalie matchups in recent memory.
Although the Rangers began the day one point ahead of the Bruins, they had been struggling of late to score, with just 10 goals in their last six games, in which they went 3-3. Part of that dearth of scoring is tied to the fact the Rangers’ power play has gone to ground, failing to score in seven straight games before Gaborik’s game winner.
In spite of the closeness of this contest and the continued closeness in the standings, there remains the perception that the Bruins are the better team and that the road to the Cup will run through Boston in the spring. Given that, Saturday’s win was a much-needed shot in the arm for the Rangers, who got goals from a couple of their top-end players. Brandon Dubinsky, with his 16th, gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead and Gaborik chipped in his 24th and 25th. The Bruins, meanwhile, reinforced the notion that they are the deepest team in the NHL with goals from defensemen Ference and Adam McQuaid. Offensive mainstays David Krejci, Rich Peverley and Milan Lucic chipped in assists. But if there is an obvious difference between these two teams, especially as it related to a potential conference final clash, it’s the edge the Bruins would seem to own in the depth department.
The expectation is that the Rangers will try to address that before the Feb. 27 trade deadline with a top-six forward and a puck-moving defenseman (did we mention their power play stinks?). The Bruins, meanwhile, will be looking more down-market for a versatile forward and similar multi-skilled defenseman.
Still, whatever additions might be made in a little over a month won’t appreciably change the identities of either team, and that’s not a bad thing given the show they put on Saturday.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.