The first meeting between the top two clubs in the NHL’s Eastern Conference was 3.6 seconds shy of a shootout yesterday. Nobody would be surprised if the next three clashes - to say nothing of seven more possible showdowns in May - produced similar extra-time results.
Both teams have excellent goaltending. They play rugged, big-boy hockey. They don’t give up many scoring chances. When their forechecking is crisp, opponents find them both to be handfuls.
“I thought our whole team played a real good game,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien after a 3-2 overtime loss to the Rangers yesterday before 17,565 at TD Garden. “Just one of those games where, unfortunately, it takes a winner and it takes a loser.
“It’s a 3-point game. That’s probably the way it should have ended, the way both teams played. The only downside was that we were hoping to be on the winning side of it.’’
At the end, Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask made two breathtaking glove saves, first on Ryan Callahan, then on Brad Richards. But Rask, down and out after the two show-stoppers, couldn’t recover in time to get in front of Marian Gaborik’s third bid at 4:56 of overtime. After breaking his stick on the net, Rask hustled off the ice.
“What [stinks] the most is three seconds,’’ said Rask, who made 30 saves. “Somebody liked it, I guess. Pretty thrilling end. Not for me, though.’’
The goal came during a five-minute power play for the Rangers. At 1:50 of OT, Andrew Ference was tagged with a five-minute charging major and a game misconduct for running Ryan McDonagh into the boards from behind. McDonagh was injured on the play.
Ference might not be available for today’s game against the Flyers because of the hit. While he never has been suspended, he had to participate in two disciplinary hearings during last year’s first playoff round against Montreal. Ference was fined $2,500 for making an obscene gesture at the Bell Centre crowd, and he got a second call after connecting with Jeff Halpern’s head in Game 7.
Steven Kampfer would get the nod if Ference can’t play today.
Ference’s hit marred this heavyweight bout of a game, which featured a fight within the fight when Shawn Thornton challenged Mike Rupp at 2:44 of the second period.
The blue-collar hue made it a beautiful game. For almost 65 minutes, both clubs greased each other with tooth-rattling hits and threw their bodies in front of pucks. The Rangers were credited with 27 hits to the Bruins’ 12. New York blocked 22 shots, including seven by McDonagh.
It was a lunchpail effort from both teams, who proved why they’re 1-2 atop the Eastern Conference.
“Not a lot of surprises,’’ Thornton said. “We were aware they’re very well-structured defensively. They work hard. They have good goaltending.
“They work extremely hard, actually. They have a lot of depth. No real surprises. It was kind of the game we expected. I think the game showed that. It could have gone either way.’’
At 1:31 of the second, Callahan struck first. After serving a tripping penalty, he stepped out of the box and pulled away for a two-on-one rush with Brandon Prust against Dennis Seidenberg. From the left faceoff dot, Callahan snapped a puck that beat Rask low blocker to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead.
Less than two minutes later, the Bruins evened the score. After a perfect breakout, the Bruins hurtled into the offensive zone with speed.
Milan Lucic gave David Krejci a cross-ice pass, then broke for the net. By driving toward the goal, Lucic forced Dan Girardi to go with him. In turn, that opened up a passing lane for Krejci to find Ference joining the rush. Ference beat Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist with a short-range backhander at 3:28.
A bad-bounce goal gave the Rangers the lead at 14:30 of the second. Seidenberg blocked Carl Hagelin’s shot, but the puck landed on the stick of Gaborik. As soon as Gaborik settled the puck, the sharpshooter blasted a half-slapper past Rask to make it 2-1.
The Bruins punched back when Adam McQuaid, Ference’s partner on the third defense pairing, netted his second goal of the season. The Bruins executed a set faceoff play with Chris Kelly beating Brian Boyle on an offensive-zone draw. From the left-side wall, Rich Peverley spotted McQuaid open on the other side.
McQuaid snapped a shot that deflected off Boyle and sailed past Lundqvist (32 saves) at 19:11 of the second to tie the game at 2-2.
“We needed them to support the attack,’’ Julien said of his defensemen. “We needed them to move the puck well through the neutral zone and get it in. They did a great job of that.’’
The only major shortcoming was the power play. The Bruins were 0 for 4 on the man-advantage. During eight minutes of one-up play, Lundqvist was asked to stop only two pucks because of how tenaciously the Rangers blocked shots and busted up passes with their sticks.
“Anybody who doesn’t think we played well needs to reevaluate how he looks at the game of hockey,’’ Julien said. “It was a great game played by both teams. It’s certainly what this league is looking for.’’Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.