NEW YORK – The Boston Bruins have not been to the NHL playoffs since 2004, so forgive them if they are already getting into postseason mode a week before the all-star game.
Chuck Kobasew capped off a big weekend with a short-handed goal and assist while Tim Thomas made 30 saves Sunday as the Bruins completed a home-and-home sweep of the New York Rangers with a 3-1 victory.
Kobasew scored in the first period, after netting two power-play goals in a 4-3 shootout victory Saturday in Boston, and set up Glen Metropolit in the third for the Bruins, who moved three points ahead of the Rangers in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
“That was our whole focus going into this. We’ve got to start separating from the pack,” said Marc Savard, who had two assists. “We’ve got to beat the guys we’re chasing a playoff spot with.
“That’s what we talked about, the playoffs. It’s the closest thing we’re going to see until the end of the year.”
The Bruins managed only 20 shots on Henrik Lundqvist, concentrating on a simple, defensive-minded approach after grabbing the early lead.
Phil Kessel made it 3-0 with his 12th goal with 2:59 remaining, and Brandon Dubinsky spoiled Thomas’ shutout bid with 43.6 seconds left.
“Maybe it wasn’t pretty, but we did a good job keeping it tight defensively, and Timmy was unbelievable again,” Savard said.
Boston is 3-0-1 in its last four, avoiding overtime Sunday for the first time in that stretch. New York is in a 2-6-2 rut and is one point below the playoff cutoff with 33 games left. A third straight trip to the postseason is becoming a daunting task.
“It’s starting to seem like it’s going to be a tough challenge,” Lundqvist said. “We played pretty good.
“There are small things we can do a little bit better because obviously it’s not enough. We’re not winning. We can’t be satisfied.”
The Rangers recorded several big hits on the opening shift, perhaps motivated by teammate Sean Avery’s assessment after Saturday’s loss that they lacked urgency and intensity.
It didn’t translate into success.
“They played smarter than we did,” Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr said. “We had some scoring chances, but we should have got more.
“They didn’t make any mistakes.”
Rangers defenceman Fedor Tyutin failed to keep the puck in the Boston zone, and Kobasew raced the other way. He let fly a shot from above the left circle that beat Lundqvist with 2:07 left in the first.
It was the fifth short-handed goal scored by the Bruins this season, three by Kobasew. New York has allowed five.
Despite a 12-4 shots advantage and a pair of power plays, the Rangers sulked to the dressing room down by a goal after 20 minutes.
“We beat ourselves so we have to fix it ourselves, and we can,” forward Brendan Shanahan said. “It’s tough to be positive after a game like this.
“It’s not like we’re playing our best hockey and just can’t win. We’re playing as bad hockey as we’ve played since I’ve been here.”
Whether it was the early afternoon start Sunday or fans of both teams focused more on the New York Giants’ and New England Patriots’ NFL conference championship games later in the day, the crowd was quite subdued considering this was a matchup of Original Six teams fighting for important points.
The Bruins seemed content to try to win 1-0. They had only six shots overall with less than six minutes left in the second, and were down 23-11 heading into the third.
“If you’re not getting your nose dirty and get chances from a second or third effort, the shot total might look sexy but it doesn’t mean a thing,” Rangers coach Tom Renney said. “Go to the net.
“Check out every night when the games are concluded and watch the goals scored and how they are scored. First of all, there are not many of us.
“We don’t have enough grease in our game. If we have to rearrange lines or put people in the lineup and take people out of the lineup to ensure that we get at least what we’re looking for in the attempt to do things right, then that’s where we are. So step up or step back.”
Even when the Rangers (22-21-6) spent time in the Boston zone, the only sounds that filled Madison Square Garden were groans and boos over the lack of shots and scoring chances.
“We’ve lost 21 games,” Renney said. “That’s brutal.”
Kobasew struck again in the third, setting up Metropolit, who found a loose puck and tucked it past Lundqvist to make it 2-0 at 2:04 with his eighth goal and first in 18 games.
“We made this into our own little personal playoff series,” Thomas said. “Coming off a win like (Saturday), oftentimes a team will let up.
“We showed a lot of character to battle through it.”
Notes: Kobasew has 17 goals, three shy of tying the career high he established during the 2005-06 season with Calgary. … D Marek Malik was scratched after taking two of New York’s eight penalties Saturday. … Boston LW Shawn Thornton sat out for the second time in 13 games.