WILMINGTON - When the Bruins host the Rangers today at TD Garden, it could very well serve as a playoff primer.
Perhaps even a glimpse of the Eastern Conference finals.
But Bruins coach Claude Julien took a more pragmatic view yesterday, calling it a contest between evenly matched teams.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that they’ve played well and have been a good, consistent team all year,’’ Julien said of the Rangers, who own a one-point advantage over the Bruins for the conference lead. “It’s going to be a tough game against them. There’s certainly some excitement from our team and looking forward to the matchup, and I’m sure it’s the same from their side.’’
It is hard to overlook the clubs’ similarities.
Like the Bruins, the Rangers have enough depth to roll four lines and are backstopped by a strong goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist (20-10-4), who is tied for third in the league in save percentage (.936) and fourth in goals-against average (1.93).
“He’s having a great year again,’’ said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. “He’s always tough to beat and he covers the net really well. We just have to be willing to put a lot of traffic in front of him, a lot of shots, and get some offense going that way.’’
Tuukka Rask (11-4-1) will likely oppose Lundqvist, after Tim Thomas made back-to-back starts. Rask is the league leader in GAA (1.61) and save percentage (.946).
“They’re a team that likes to play a heavy game also,’’ Julien said. “So it’ll be an interesting matchup.’’
The Bruins are coming off a 4-1 road victory over the Devils Thursday. Boston erased a 1-0 deficit in the third period with four goals, the first three in a span of 4 minutes 44 seconds, before Chris Kelly punctuated the triumph with an empty-net goal with 47 seconds left.
“Even though the first two periods we didn’t generate much offense, I thought our compete level was better, and a lot of battles were a lot better,’’ Julien said. “Our physical part of the game and a lot of the battles were a lot better.
“It just seemed like once we scored our first goal [by Andrew Ference at 3:01], all of a sudden the offensive part of our game came back as well. Hopefully, we can carry that third period into [today’s] game right from the get-go and continue to build on that.’’
After Thomas appeared mortal in a 5-3 loss at Tampa Bay Tuesday night, Julien said the decision to go back to him Thursday was rooted in part in his desire to not let that setback fester - for Thomas and the team.
“I know Tim bounces back well and we needed him to bounce back,’’ Julien said. “I didn’t want him to drag that game with him because we asked the rest of our team not to, so we needed a much better effort in New Jersey and we wanted him to be part of that group.’’
Thomas stopped 30 of 31 shots to help snap the Devils’ three-game winning streak.
“In hindsight, I wasn’t thinking about it [Thursday]. All I was thinking about was getting ready to play,’’ Thomas said. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘Coach is showing confidence in me by going back to me.’ I wasn’t looking at it like that. I just got the call again and I was just getting ready to show up and do the best I could. It turned out very well, for both me and the team.’’
Said Julien, “He responded well and I thought he seemed more comfortable. As I’ve often said, we’re not used to seeing Timmy have an average game, and when he does it seems to bring some attention, and that’s to his credit because he’s been that good to us.’’
A little off
After serving a five-game suspension for clipping Vancouver’s Sami Salo Jan. 7, Brad Marchand said it felt good “to get back and be part of the team again’’ in Thursday night’s win.
Marchand returned to his customary spot on a line with Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin, but failed to generate a shot in 16:40 of ice time.
“I felt like my hands were a little rusty and my timing was a little off,’’ Marchand said. “A couple of plays I messed up on, I wished I could’ve had back, but it happens.’’
Julien, however, was not disappointed in Marchand’s play.
“For a guy who hadn’t played in a week and a half, I thought he played well, he played with some energy,’’ Julien said. “When you haven’t played in a while, you think you’re skating a lot, and you think you’re keeping yourself in shape, but there’s nothing like playing the game.’’
After today’s game, the Bruins travel to Philadelphia to play the Flyers tomorrow at 3 p.m., then head to Washington, where they will visit President Obama at the White House on Monday, before facing the Capitals Tuesday night. “It’s going to be very busy with two games back-to-back against tough opponents, then finishing right before the All-Star [break] with Washington, which is also playing better,’’ said Chara, who will serve as an All-Star captain. “We’ve got to approach it seriously and play really well.’’ . . . Kelly did not practice yesterday, Julien explaining his absence as “just maintenance.’’ . . . The NHL announced that Julien and the rest of the Bruins’ coaching staff will coach the All-Star team captained by Chara. John Tortorella of the Rangers and Todd McLellan of the Sharks will guide the other team, captained by the Senators’ Daniel Alfredsson . . . Forward Jordan Caron and defenseman Steven Kampfer were sent to Providence yesterday. “I would anticipate, probably on the road trip, bringing an extra player, an extra defenseman,’’ Julien said. “We’ve got an extra forward right now, so if that’s the case, then so be it. If not, they’re a phone call away and a flight away from joining the team.’’