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Eastern Conference Preview: (4) Boston vs. (6) NY Rangers

By Brian Stubits | Hockey writer

Boston and New York haven't played since Feb. 12. (USATSI)
Boston and New York haven't played since Feb. 12. (USATSI)

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The Boston Bruins go from one Original Six rival to another as the New York Rangers await in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

It's Boston vs. New York. While the rivalry might not contain the animosity that the baseball teams from the two cities have for one another, they are rival cities, if you will. It's still a matchup that isn't full of much else but hostility.

While they don't like each other given the ingredients of their relationship, it's almost like hating themselves because these two teams are so much alike. Maybe not in their styles of play or the way they have been built, but, in terms of results, they're almost like twins.

It's that symmetric component that makes this series so intriguing, more than the cities that they each call home having a long standing sporting rivalry. Boston's strengths are New York's strengths. Boston's weaknesses are New York's weaknesses. At even strength, these were top-five teams in the league. So while the Rangers just came out of a series in which special teams were absolutely imperative, this is about as nonspecial teams-centric as a postseason series gets (now, watch the power play decide the series).

You can't even read too much into their matchups this season. All three games -- the Rangers won two of three, both wins beyond regulation -- came before Valentine's Day. A lot has happened since then. For example, the Rangers' leading goal scorer against Boston, Marian Gaborik, was traded. So even that doesn't offer up many clues.

Because of that even matchup across the board, this series is ultimately very difficult to predict. It will probably come down to the unforeseen things, the breaks within the games and lucky bounces.

BOS Offense vs. NYR Defense

The positive for the Bruins' offense: They have the puck more often than not. The Bruins were second in the league this season in shots per game. However, that only resulted in the 13th-most goals in the league. Still, you'd much rather be in a position of generating a lot of shots instead of giving them up, and that's typically the case with this team.

They certainly have a roster of guys whom you would expect to score; it just doesn't always seem to work that well. In the first round against Toronto, the top line with David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton was simply on fire. They all had their struggles during the season but started to hit their stride against the Leafs. The second line, which was the strongest during the regular campaign, was all but invisible until Game 7. The trick is getting both lines going together with some contribution even from the lower lines, where Jaromir Jagr spends time.

What they face in the Rangers, though, is New York's bread and butter, a strong defense. It's partly due to the great goaltender that they have behind them. But ever since John Tortorella has been in New York, they have been a team that prioritizes play in their own zone. It showed again as the Rangers gave up the fourth-fewest goals in the league.

What they are known for, particularly this time of year, is their shot-blocking ability. Dan Girardi does it better than anybody in the NHL, and Ryan Callahan, a forward, will do it out high. Not to mention, they have their workhorse in Ryan McDonagh. It's a complete corps that they have and, combined with their ability to not only fill shooting lanes but collapse on their own net, they are tough to get the puck past.

NYR Offense vs. BOS Defense

Again, these teams are close to mirror images of one another in many ways. In this case, that means the Bruins' defense is a slightly stronger unit than the Rangers' offense, even if the latter has plenty of potential.

The Rangers have been adding offensive players for years now while bringing up players from within the system. The result is a group that features Rick Nash, Brad Richards -- who finished the first round on the fourth line -- Derek Stepan, Callahan, etc. But they still have trouble scoring at times. Before a late-season surge, the Rangers were one of the worst teams in the league offensively speaking. When it was all said and done, New York was 15th in the league with 2.62 goals per game. Similar to the Bruins, again, they probably should have fared better since they had the seventh-most shots on goal in the NHL. In the opening round, the Rangers did get a lot of contribution from the secondary scoring, guys like Derick Brassard who really took off.

Defensively speaking, the Bruins are as stout or even more so than the Rangers, but we're really splitting hairs. Boston was third in goals against this season though it did give up an average number of shots per game -- good goaltending helps.

You can't talk about the Bruins' defense without mentioning Zdeno Chara. He routinely draws the toughest assignments and, this time of year, plays nearly half of every game. The Bruins will do all they can to get Chara matched up against the Rangers' top offensive talent every shift.

Goaltending

To be clear, any team in the league would take either of these guys in a heartbeat. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say they are two of the top five goaltenders in the league. At worst, two of the top 10.

That said, the Rangers get a slight edge in this category because Henrik Lundqvist is Henrik Lundqvist. He is, as Tortorella describes him, the backbone of the Rangers. They can count on him to the point that any goal that he gives up almost feels like a disappointment. If that doesn't scare Boston enough, Lundqvist comes into this series at the absolute top of his game. Facing elimination twice, Lundqvist didn't allow one goal to the Capitals in the final two games, including Game 7 in Washington.

Don't take any of that to mean that Tuukka Rask isn't a worthy adversary for Lundqvist in this series because that would be the furthest thing from the truth. In raw goalie numbers this regular season, Rask was the better of the two with a .929 save percentage and 2.00 goals against average. The Maple Leafs were able to get a few more past him in the first series, but his role in keeping the Bruins in that series and Game 7 can't be overlooked.

This will be an awesome goaltending battle.

Special Teams

The Bruins get the slightest of edges here because they aren't quite as bad as New York.

It has really amazing how both power plays struggle so much; it's not as if they don't have talent. But figuring out the man advantage has been an issue in Boston for years. Even when they won the Stanley Cup two years ago, their power play was powerless in the playoffs. The same goes for New York. Last season, they were a non-factor a man up and this season wasn't a whole lot better. The Rangers finished 23rd in the NHL in power play percentage while the Bruins finished 26th.

The slight edge the Bruins get in special teams comes from the PK, where they did finish fourth this season. You'd expect that both teams would be strong penalty killers, but the Rangers don't quite fit that bill. They were middle of the road, killing 81.1 percent of penalties, good enough for 15th this season. In the first round, though, it was the Rangers' PK that was the better of the two despite facing the stronger power play.

In other words, these units, like these teams, are talented but inconsistent. Unless you're talking about their struggles on the power play, then they're totally consistent.

Prediction

 
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