Patriots

Bruins-Rangers preview: Solving King Henrik

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Bruins-Rangers preview: Solving King Henrik

NEW YORK The Bruins have tried to beat the Rangers three times, and failed all three times this season.

Thats nothing new for the Black and Gold as theyve lost nine of the last 11 games to the New York Rangers, and are regularly mesmerized by Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes for the Blueshirts. Now with four games remaining in the season this is the final big game on Bostons schedule before they can begin resting players and getting ready for the postseason.

Any combination of an Ottawa loss and a Boston win clinches the Northeast Division title, and a Bruins victory combined with a Florida defeat would also lock them in as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. So theres motivation for finishing off their regular season business, and theres also the act of finally landing a few punches against a Blueshirted bunch thats represented Bostons kryptonite over the years.

I think its a great test for both the team and for me as were getting ready for the playoffs. These are the kinds of games we need to play to make sure were ready, said Tyler Seguin. We havent done the greatest against them. Hopefully we can show them what we can bring just in case we meet them a couple of weeks from now in the playoffs as well.

It will be interesting to see if the Bruins take the same tact they did the last time out in Madison Square Garden when three Bs players dropped the gloves in a convincing show of emotion. Milan Lucic completely obliterated Brandon Prust in front of the Boston bench with a series of strong right-handed punches, but the Bruins still fell behind by a pair of goals before and eventually lost, 4-3.

That was in the middle of Boston's two month funk, however. Now the Bruins are 6-1-1 in their last eight games, and seemed to have found the range offensively and defensively just as the postseason is about to begin. Sunday nights tilt against a Rangers team thats owned them should be the last playoff-style contest until the postseason actually arrives two weeks from now.

PLAYER NEEDING HIS TIRED PUMPED: Tim Thomas was outplayed by Henrik Lundqvist in the last game at Madison Square Garden and then passive-aggressively blamed the theater lighting in the postgame locker room. Thomas is 2-6-1 with a 2.86 goals against average and a .903 save percentage in his career at Madison Square Garden, so it appears the 37-year-old goaltender is certainly uncomfortable there. But both Thomas and the Bruins need a good performance there before the regular season is over, so they can draw on that for confidence in a potential Eastern Conference final match somewhere down the line.

DRESSING ROOM MANTRA HEADED INTO THE GAME: Theres no doubting hes an excellent goaltender and hes had some very good games against us. There is a challenge there for us to go out and have success against him and the Rangers. But it always comes back to the same things against good goaltender -- making them move around and getting plenty of good traffic moving in front of them. Even the best goalies cant stop what they cant see. Chris Kelly on what the Bruins need to do to solve Henrik Lundqvist and actually beat the Rangers.

KEY MATCHUP: For the Bruins, its all about beating Henrik Lundqvist. The Swedish goaltender was has dominated the Bruins throughout his career, and the line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin have combined for one assist in the three previous games against New York. Theyre also a combined minus-9 this season against the Blueshirts, so that lines shifts against the Rangers and King Henrik could provide the difference in the game. If they can build on the third period against the Islanders that saw them explode for three goals en route to victory then perhaps the results can be different this time around against the Blueshirts.

STAT TO WATCH: .5 That's the number of Eastern Conference clashes in a row the Rangers have bested the Bruins dating back to the middle of last season.

INJURIES: Tuukka Rask (groin strainabdomen strain) and Nathan Horton (mild concussion) are long term injuries for the Bruins, but Rask may be hitting the ice next week with an eye toward returning for the playoffs. Dennis Seidenberg is a question mark with an infected cut on his left leg and Adam McQuaid is out with a cut over his left eye. The Rangers will be without forward Mats Zuccarello and defensemen Steve Eminger (ankle) and Michael Sauer (concussion).

GOALTENDING MATCH-UP: Tim Thomas is 2-6-1 lifetime at Madison Square Garden with extremely middling statistics, but hes also 3-1-1 with a 1.60 goals against average and a .935 save percentage in his last five outings. Thomas could use the confidence that would go along with a positive, winning performance against the Rangers on their home ice prior to a potential matchup in the playoffs. Meanwhile Henrik Lundqvist is simply dominating the Bruins like no other goaltender in the league, and is now 19-5-2 with a 1.51 goals against average, a .948 save percentage and six shutouts in 26 games against the Bruins.

Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

“We’re a blue-collar team…”

Devin McCourty didn’t hesitate when asked about the Patriots’ identity. Moments prior, McCourty and his teammates had just stomped the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City, 33-8, to run their win streak to a half-dozen games. The Pats are tied for the best record in the AFC with the Steelers

“We played at a high level,” said McCourty. “They made some plays, but I thought we executed our game plan and did exactly what we wanted to do today.”

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After surrendering a 100-points per game through the first month (ok, it was only 32), the Pats defense has flexed their muscle during this stretch, allowing 12.5 points per game, which would be the best in the NFL were this a season-long thing. We’re not looking at the same unit even though the personnel is largely the same. If anything, from a talent-level, this defense has less skill than it did when the season started. Their best player, Dont'a Hightower, is out for the year, lost during the first win of this 6-game streak. They’ve also survived three-game absences from $31-million cornerback Stephon Gilmore and their most consistent interior defender, tackle Malcom Brown. Yet the defense keeps showing up, keeps improving and its confidence is growing by leaps and bounds.

“We’re just playing together…we’re kind of figuring that out,” said McCourty. “We’re understanding how we need to prepare, how we need to practice, whether it’s a hard, full-padded practice, whether it’s a walkthrough, we know what we need to do on each of those days and when we do that, we give ourselves a chance. You’re seeing that on Sundays. Everyone running around, everyone knows their job and it’s all about execution.”

“I thought our players gave a great effort tonight,” said Bill Belichick. “We came out and performed well early, throughout the game and played really good situational football.”

The Pats were opportunistic, forcing three turnovers, including one in a huge spot, when Marquis Flowers stripped the ball from wideout Seth Roberts as the Raiders were knocking on the door. It was 14-0 at the time, and Oakland had life. Second-year cornerback Jon Jones battled Roberts, Flowers popped the ball free and safety Pat Chung pounced on it. Instead of milking the clock and heading into halftime up two scores, the Pats turned that fumble into points, driving to midfield before Steven Gostkowski kicked a career-long 62 yarder. That further energized a Pats team that was already surging.

“It’s something we talk about every week,” said McCourty. “We’re playing solid defense, executing the game plan, but changing the game with turnovers - you know, even Duron’s interception was a third down so it was kind of like a punt. The energy that brings - when the offense takes the field after we get a turnover - that’s huge. And then with them driving again in the red area before the half is what we talked about, getting that stop.”

“We had some real critical swings with those turnovers,” admired Tom Brady, a chief beneficiary of those change in possessions.

Earlier this week, I asked McCourty if he got a sense that the team was coming together at the tail end of their stay in Colorado Springs. He smiled and joked initially, but you could sense the veteran safety can see and feel what the rest of the league is now a witness to.

“I hope so. I mean, it’d probably be terrible if I say yeah and then we go on a five-game losing streak. I can see the headline: ‘McCourty was wrong.’ So, no, I think we understand how the season starts to pick up. You know, each game means more. We understand that seven wins (now 8) doesn’t mean anything. We have to continue to get better. So, I think why we end up usually improving is because it’s the understanding of there’s no tomorrow.”

The defense ordered that Code Red after losing to Carolina in Week 4, and since then, they have worked harder, worked longer and cleaned up so many of the issues that ailed them that opening month. It’s a credit to the players, “they won’ the game tonight,” said Belichick, and the coaching staff as well. if you’ve followed this team over the years, you know even now, they’re not satisfied. There are “things to work on” added Belichick and they’ll start that work on the flight home from Mexico City to Foxboro. 

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