It hasn’t taken long for the Boston Bruins’ control of the Northeast Division to go from commanding to precarious ahead of a pivotal matchup with their closest pursuer.
The slumping Bruins will try to at least maintain their slim lead in the division race Tuesday night when they open a three-game homestand against the New Jersey Devils, who are trying to regain their own momentum in the playoff race.
Boston (39-22-10) has won once in seven games (1-3-3) after falling 5-2 at Toronto on Saturday. That poor stretch has dropped the Bruins’ division lead from six points to one on Montreal, which hosts Buffalo.
The Bruins and Canadiens will meet for the final time this regular season Thursday before Boston concludes this homestand two days later versus the New York Rangers, another team fighting for a playoff spot.
Before that, Boston will try to extend its winning streak over the Devils (34-34-4) to four for the first time since Jan. 23-Dec. 29, 1996.
The Bruins have outscored New Jersey 8-1 while taking the last three meetings, two this season. They won the latest matchup 3-0 at TD Garden on Nov. 15.
That meeting, however, came during the Devils’ woeful season-opening 10-29-2 run. They’re 24-5-2 since to become a factor in the postseason race with 10 games remaining. New Jersey is tied with Atlanta for 11th in the East, seven points behind Buffalo for the eighth and final playoff position.
“It’s going to be a good challenge for us,” Bruins coach Claude Julien told the team’s official website. “(It’s) something that we probably need right now, some good opposition and, obviously, some better games from our group.”
Boston has given up 26 goals over the last seven games, and Tim Thomas(notes) has lost his last four starts with a 3.62 goals-against average in that stretch. He was pulled midway through the second period Saturday after allowing four goals on 14 shots before returning for the third and making all eight stops.
“Your whole team needs to be cleaned up, but no doubt if we’re going to start winning some hockey games, especially this week against pretty good teams, we’re going to have to be a lot stingier,” Julien said.
Thomas, the NHL leader with a 2.08 GAA, has stopped 59 of 60 shots in winning both season meetings with New Jersey, and Rask has a 0.69 GAA and a 1-0-2 record in four career matchups.
The Devils are trying to build on Sunday’s 3-0 win over Columbus, opening a four-game trip after being outscored 6-1 while losing the previous two games to Ottawa and Washington.
Of New Jersey’s final 10 games, eight are against teams currently holding a postseason spot. The team still believes it can reach the playoffs for a 14th consecutive season.
Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) could make a big difference in the race, but he’s been held without a point the last three games after collecting 13 goals and 12 assists during the previous 22 - 18 wins for New Jersey.
The star right wing doesn’t have a point over the past five meetings with the Bruins after getting 11 goals and 10 assists in the prior 14 games.