NHL Eastern Conference: Why This Weekend's Rangers-Bruins Game Is Crucial

Anthony PucikCorrespondent IJanuary 20, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 04: Marian Gaborik #10 of the New York Rangers skates against the Boston Bruins at Madison Square Garden on April 4, 2011 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Bruins 5-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New York Rangers are 29-12-4, leading the Eastern Conference with 62 points. The Boston Bruins are right behind them, with a 30-13-1 record with 61 points.

Throughout the year, there have been questions as to whether the Rangers or the Bruins were the best team in the Eastern Conference, even the entire NHL. All of these questions will be answered on Saturday when the Rangers head to Boston for the first time this season to take on the Bruins. 

From a defensive standpoint, the numbers show an advantage to the Rangers. They are third in the NHL on the penalty kill at 87% (the Bruins a close sixth at 86.5%) and third in average goals against per game with 2.0 (the Bruins with exactly the same in second).

This Rangers' defensive success has a lot to do with rookies like Stu Bickel and Anton Stralman stepping up and filling in for a multitude of defensive injuries that have plagued the team this season, while the superb goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron also can't be ignored.

That isn't taking anything away from a Bruins defense and goalie tandem that is filled with solid players. A defense led by Zdeno Chara, along with goalies Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask; the Bruins have just as much, if not more, talent than the Rangers on defense. 

When it comes to offense, the advantage clearly goes to a Bruins team that is first in the league in goals per game (3.5) and 12th in power play percentage with 18.6%. Now, 12th doesn't seem like it is that impressive, but it is when you play the Rangers.

The Rangers have had a hard time scoring for years now, and have only just this year been able to put together a decent scoring team. They are 10th in the league in goals per game with 2.8, but their power play is still suffering, sitting 24th in the league with 14.1%.

The Rangers have fallen into a bit of a funk the last five games, going 2-3 with an absence in scoring, with the last loss coming yesterday evening in a 4-1 rout by the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden. The Bruins have fallen into a bit of a funk as well, going 3-2 in their last five games; their last victory coming last night in a 4-1 victory over the Devils in New Jersey, placing them one point away from the Rangers for best in the Eastern Conference.

Saturday's game is important for many reasons. Not only does it decide the outright first place team in the East, but it can end the debate of (or at least give some clarity to) who truly is the best team in the Conference.

I feel as if the Rangers have a slight edge on defense, whereas the Bruins have the edge on offense, and both teams have some of the best goalies in the league along with stellar backups. The only way this debate can be settled is when the Bruins and Rangers play, and we finally get to see that on Saturday.

I think this game is going to be down to the wire and could go either way. It is going to be a tough game with two very good defenses and even better goaltenders. Whoever wins tomorrow's game is, in my mind, the best team in the Eastern Conference.