The Boston Bruins became the first NHL team to clinch a conference top spot Saturday, defeating the New York Rangers 1-0.
Blake Wheeler scored the only goal as the Bruins wrapped up the No. 1 position in the Eastern Conference, with Tim Thomas making 31 saves in his first game since signing a lucrative four-year contract extension.
"Obviously, this stuff affects you to a certain point," Thomas said of the contract talks, "but I've been able to put it behind me and just concentrate on hockey."
Thomas, who earned his fifth shutout, leads the league in goals-against average and save percentage.
It was the first conference title for the Bruins since 2001-02. The team that season was upset in the first round of the playoffs by its nemesis, Montreal.
The game could have gone either way, as the Rangers held a territorial edge for much of the second period and the first half of the third. New York has just three points in the last five games and is clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference.
Goalie Henrik Lundqvist held his own with Thomas, finishing with 22 saves.
"It's a very, very important time right now," Lundqvist said. "We can't beat ourselves [up] very much right now. We're still in the eighth spot."
Avery clips goalie
Forward Sean Avery, who played a strong game for the Rangers, again showed why he's one of the most vexing players in the league. Late in the third period, with Thomas resting on a knee, Avery came up behind and clipped the goalie's neck with his stick. Thomas took exception and shoved Avery.
"I actually like the way he plays around the net. He's tenacious. He gets in right around the crease but he's not actually doing anything illegal," Thomas said, "but there's lines that you can cross and he seems to have a hard time figuring out what those lines are."
Despite what looked like an intentional provocation on Avery's part, both players ended up with two-minute penalties.
"I really like the fact that we kept our composure and got the win," Thomas said. "If you can react and not have it affect your game, then he didn't do his job and it didn't work."
Penalty killed off
When Marc Savard cross-checked Nik Antropov on the next shift, Boston found itself down 4-on-3, but Stephane Yelle made a clutch shot block to help the Bruins kill off the penalty and go on to the victory.
At game's end, the Bruins trailed San Jose by one point in the race for the Presidents' Trophy for top regular season team in the league. The Sharks led Detroit in the Western Conference by six points, with each team having five games remaining.
Before the game, the Bruins made official a four-year contract extension for Thomas worth about $20 million US. He made $1.1 million this season.
He was tested on an early chance by Markus Naslund of the Rangers.
Rookie Wheeler opened the scoring midway through the first with his 21st of the season. The big forward, manning the point, took a pass from P.J. Axelsson and blasted a shot low behind Lundqvist.
The Rangers had control in the second but couldn't finish. Scott Gomez just missed the far post with his shot, while Chris Drury's hard shot was right into the midsection of Thomas.
There was end-to-end action late in the frame, with Boston's Milan Lucic and Ryan Callahan of the Rangers trading great scoring chances.
Lundqvist hangs tough
Lucic forced an Avery turnover in the third and skated in alone, but Lundqvist was equal to the task.
Naslund hit the post behind Thomas, with Michal Rozsival blasting a one-timer that was saved by the Bruins goalie.
The crowd in Boston was hushed when Dennis Wideman took a Derek Morris slapper in his torso, but the Bruins defenceman returned not long after. Boston's Phil Kessel missed his fifth straight game, while defenceman Aaron Ward was also out of the lineup. Both players have undisclosed injuries.
The Bruins and Rangers split four games this season. Boston's other win was also by 1-0 score, with prospect Tuukka Rask posting the shutout.