BOSTON -- There have been a handful of teams that have jostled for Beast of the East status over the first five months of the season.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers had their moments early on before injuries begin picking away at their Cup-caliber rosters. The Florida Panthers even had a few moments of glory before reality set in.
The Bruins dominated November and December, when they ran roughshod over anyone in their way and made a claim as the best team in the NHL.
But the New York Rangers are on top of the heap now, having made a definitive statement with two road victories over the Bruins in the last three weeks.
The second of those two wins came Tuesday night, when noted Bs killer Henrik Lundqvist made 42 saves and his teammates blocked 22 more shots -- leading to plenty of ice bags in the visiting dressing room -- in a 3-0 win. The Rangers now have a nine-point lead in the Eastern Conference over the Bruins, who dropped to a mediocre 6-7-1 over their last 14 games.
Bruins coach Claude Julien seemed to recognize the hunger he saw from the Blueshirts on Tuesday night. It's the same one he's seen in the eyes of the Bruins, but that he isn't finding these days.
Theyre playing well, like we did last year when we were playing well, which is whats happening right now, said Julien with a wistful look in his eye. They grind you down, and they dont give you much. Whenever you give them an opportunity, they pounce on it. Right now thats kind of the identity were looking for again.
When the Bruins are on top of their game, the outcome's decided if they get ahead by two goals. And that's exactly what happened Tuesday night, only in reverse. The Rangers took a 2-0 lead in the first period and then clamped down on Boston's offense, stacking bodies in front of Lundqvist and forcing the Bruins to labor to simply get shots off from the point.
When Bruin attackers did manage to get behind the big-bodied defense corps and fearless shot-blocking forwards like Ryan Callahan and Brian Boyle, Lundqvist once again proved to be the Bs daddy. King Henrik is 18-5-2 with six shutouts against the Bruins over his career, and he was at his best Tuesday night.
That looked like a good team that we just played tonight, said Tim Thomas, who allowed three goals on 22 shots in the loss. Just the overall way that they played together and . . . you know . . . theyre playing good defense with a good goaltender.
The defense and elite goaltending effectively frustrated the Bruins at their own game, and lured the Bs into the kind of gaffes they normally capitalize on. For a player who prides himself on playing that style, it was frustrating for Zdeno Chara to watch his team fall to a more effective version of themselves.
Theres a reason why the Rangers are where they are. At the same time, I thought that we didnt play our best, as well in either game, said Chara, referring to the 3-2 overtime loss three weeks ago to the Rangers. But I think that they deserve to be where theyre at."
Where they are is on top of the hill, playing some of their best hockey of the season. The Bruins have lost their bragging rights as the class of the East, despite their Stanley Cup pedigree, until further notice.
"We havent seen all the teams in the Western Conference, but theres no doubt right now the Rangers are playing the best," said Julien. "They play hard."They play hard, they play clean, they don't don't budge an inch and they're incredibly hard to play against. The Rangers are also seemingly at the top of their game in the middle of the season with four tough months ahead. All of that sounds like a hockey team people are used towatchingaround these parts, doesn't it?