Nick Goss

Red-hot Rangers pose great test for Bruins in preparation for playoffs

The third and final regular season meeting between these teams could be a playoff preview.

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The Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers have been jockeying for position atop the Eastern Conference standings for more than a month, but there's now another team in the mix for the top seed.

The New York Rangers are the hottest team in the NHL right now. They have a 16-4-1 record in their last 21 games entering Thursday night's showdown against the Bruins at TD Garden.

These results have pushed the Rangers up to 94 points with a 45-20-4 record -- tied with the Panthers (94 points, 45-19-4) and three behind the Bruins (97 points, 41-14-15).

"I think we're playing fast. I think we're on the attack. I think defensively we've been pretty good lately," Rangers head coach Peter Laviolette said after Wednesday's practice, per the team. "There's lots of things I like about our game as we're heading into the playoffs."

The stats also paint a rosy picture of the Rangers' performance over the last two months or so. Here's how the Rangers and Bruins compare since New York's hot streak began Jan. 27.

The Rangers pose a great test for the Bruins for a lot of reasons. This is a big, physical team that skates hard and fast and has plenty of offensive firepower.

The B's found that out firsthand in the two previous matchups this season -- a 7-4 Rangers win in New York on Nov. 25 and a 2-1 overtime win for the Rangers in Boston on Dec. 16. Bruins star David Pastrnak was ejected in the second meeting after receiving a five-minute major penalty for boarding on a pretty suspect call.

The lopsided loss in November saw the Bruins give up 36 scoring chances and 19 high-danger chances during 5-on-5 play. There's been only one other game this season during which the B's have allowed more scoring chances (Feb. 19 vs. Stars) and high-danger chances (Jan. 9 vs. Coyotes).

The Bruins have spent 391:27 on the penalty kill this season. Only the Anaheim Ducks have been shorthanded more often. The B's gave the Rangers nine power-play opportunities over the first two meetings this season and New York cashed in once each game. Boston has to be more disciplined against a Rangers lineup that features nine players with 10-plus goals, including five with 20-plus goals.

This is a deep, highly skilled group of forwards that puts a ton of pressure on opponents with its speed, tenacity and heavy forecheck. The Bruins have struggled against these types of opponents in recent playoff runs, most notably the Panthers (2023) and Carolina Hurricanes (2022). And if the Bruins are going to make a deep playoff run in 2024, they'll have to beat a couple teams built like the Rangers to do it.

Goaltending is another area where the Rangers have an advantage over the Bruins.

In fact, Igor Shesterkin has been the league's top netminder since New York's 16-4-1 run began Jan. 26. During that span, he ranks No. 1 in save percentage (.938), No. 4 in GAA (2.00), No. 1 in goals saved above expected (15.17) and No. 7 in high-danger save percentage (.853), per Natural Stat Trick.

Boston goalies Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman have posted a .910 and .902 save percentage, respectively, over that same span. Swayman has given up eight goals on 50 shots over his last two starts. He's likely to be in net Thursday.

Despite the Bruins' struggles against the Rangers this season, they have played quite well versus quality opponents. They have a 11-4-3 record versus Eastern Conference teams currently in a playoff spot. Boston's overall record against teams in a playoff spot right now is 20-5-8.

The earliest possible round the Bruins and Rangers could meet in the playoffs is the Eastern Conference Final, and there's a long, long way to go before that time.

But Thursday's matchup is a fantastic test for these teams. Both of them are facing high expectations after recent postseason disappointments. A decisive victory for either team would be a real confidence booster with just a month to go before the postseason commences.

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