BOSTON – Putting the puck past Henrik Lundqvist is a huge challenge for the Boston Bruins.
Of course, they have to get it to him first and that’s a tough task against the shot-blocking New York Rangers.
“They’re definitely going to be laying down to block those shots,” Boston forward Patrice Bergeron said after practice for Thursday night’s series opener. “We have to be aware of that. I think it’s about finding ways to get that puck to the net and faking shots and moving more.”
On Monday night, it seemed the Bruins wouldn’t have to worry about that. They were close to elimination.
Then they rallied from a three-goal deficit in the last 11 minutes of the third period and beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-4 on Bergeron’s overtime goal in Game 7.
“You don’t give up,” Bruins forward Jaromir Jagr said Wednesday, but “if you try to do it again, you’re probably not going to do it even if you try 100 times, but it happened.”
Now it’s time to forget that unforgettable comeback. It’s time for the Eastern Conference semifinals, the first playoff meeting between the teams in 40 years.
Lundqvist, last year’s Vezina Trophy winner and finalist for that award this season, enters the series with consecutive shutouts in Games 6 and 7 against the Washington Capitals. He stopped 62 shots in those games while facing elimination.
The key to the shutouts?
“Box them out before they get (near the goal) so they can’t provide a screen,” Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi said. “If we can’t box them out, the biggest thing is getting (at) their sticks. Hankie is going to stop that shot if he sees it. We have to do a good job of letting Hankie see those first shots, make sure there’s no tips.”
Girardi led the NHL this season with 125 blocked shots, just under three per game. The Rangers were sixth with 16.1 per game. And in the playoffs, they have three of the top seven shot blockers — Girardi in second place with 24, Ryan McDonagh in fourth with 20 and Ryan Callahan in seventh with 18.
And even though Bruins captain Zdeno Chara can slap the puck at more than 100 mph from the point, they’re not likely to shy away.
“Anything they can get to, they’re going to block,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “If they have a chance to block a shot, they are going to block a shot. Everybody.”
If they do, Chara could make it painful.
“I’m certainly not going to ask him to take anything off his shot because they’re blocking,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said.
He wants his players to keep their heads up and watch where they’re shooting instead of just looking down and hitting the puck as hard as they can.
“We’re going to have to work extra hard to get those pucks through and then get them to reach the net,” Julien said. “At the same time, I don’t think it’s a big secret to know that they got a pretty good goaltender, and that traffic in front of the net is going to be something we’re going to want to do a lot.”
Boston’s Tuukka Rask, a more aggressive goalie than Lundqvist, also has been outstanding in the playoffs.
But he could be without three injured veteran defensemen. Andrew Ference missed Games 6 and 7, Wade Redden sat out Game 7 and Dennis Seidenberg played just 37 seconds of the finale before being sidelined. None of them practiced Thursday.
“Sometimes it’s better not to practice and just to play,” said Julien, careful not to tip his hand.
Rookies Dougie Hamilton, Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug all could be active.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us,” Rask said. “It gives these new guys an opportunity to step up and show what they’ve got. If I was in their shoes I’d be really excited.”
Both teams’ leading goal scorers in the regular season — New York’s Rick Nash (21) and Boston’s Brad Marchand (18) — were shut out in their first series. But Marchand assisted on Bergeron’s series-winning goal and Nash seems to be making progress.
“He certainly wasn’t totally on but he’s very close,” Tortorella said. “I thought he played very well in Game 7. He’s playing and I think he’s going to be a really big part of this as we enter into Boston.”
Both teams snared some much-needed rest after playing two games in two days Sunday and Monday.
Bergeron expects a low-scoring series. Girardi expects it to be physical.
“Both teams want to get on the forecheck,” he said, “create some momentum that way.”
Julien wants his team to fight for position in front of Lundqvist, who allowed just 12 goals in seven games against Washington.
“They protect their goaltender fairly well,” Julien said. “You know he’s good enough to stop what he sees. They box out extremely well, so we’ve got to work hard to take away that vision that he needs to stop pucks. There’s going to be a lot of battles, I think, in this series.
“By the end of it, I think you’re going to have some exhausted teams.”