Bruins smother Rangers, 3-1

The New York Rangers, as much as any other team in the National Hockey League, appeared ready to give the dominant Bruins a good test on Thursday at Madison Square Garden.

Since Dec. 5, they were the second hottest team in the league behind the B’s with a record of 14-3-2. And not only were they catching the B’s on the second half of a back-to-back, the visitors lost steady defenseman Brandon Carlo early in the second period with a lower body injury.

But in the end, the Rangers were just another mangled piece of Bruin road kill. The B’s got a goal in each period to beat the Blueshirts, 3-1, to push their mind-boggling record to 36-5-4.

Goaltending has been very much a part of the B’s story in this season, and that was true on Thursday, with Jeremy Swayman (31 saves) making some huge saves when the game was in doubt to complete the New York sweep of the Islanders and Rangers.

Linus Ullmark, the winner in Long Island, is the clear frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy. But after starting slowly and battling through an injury, Swayman has found his game. In his last eight starts, he’s 6-0-2 with a 1.79 GAA and .941 save percentage.

“He’s been terrific,” said captain Patrice Bergeron, who notched the game-winner despite the right side of his face looking like it was rubbed raw with a Brillo pad after taking a puck off it on Wednesday. “Honestly, he’s been poised and is seeing every shot and is always in position. I can’t say enough about him and his demeanor between the pipes. He’s ready whenever he’s asked and is giving us a chance every time. When you see him having a game like he had tonight, it gives you confidence and makes you want to pull it off for him.”

It was a gritty effort from the men directly in front of Swayman. The B’s blocked 25 shots, including six by Derek Forbort while Forbort (20:06), Connor Clifton (21:05), Charlie McAvoy (24:38) and Hampus Lindholm (24:27) all played over 20 minutes. That was not ideal on the second half of a back-to-back, but the B’s have been thriving on the whatever-it-takes mindset. They are now 6-1 in the second half of back-to-backs.

“It’s just awesome to see guys compete like that on a back-to-back,” Swayman told NESN. “We knew those were two big points, that’s a great team and it’s a fun atmosphere to play in so we’re really happy with the two points.”

Yet as good a win as it was, there was also a business as usual vibe afterward.

“We’re going to feel good for five minutes and move on,” said Swayman. “We want that next challenge and we’re ready for it.”

The Bruins enjoyed early control of the game and took a quick 1-0 lead, but squandered chances to extend that lead in the first period.

On the second shift of the game, Pavel Zacha notched his eighth of the year at 1:19, his third in three games since signing his contract extension. David Krejci grabbed control of the puck out by the left point and carried it along the blue line before playing it to himself off the right boards. After the puck caromed off the boards, Krejci blasted it into the slot where Zacha was there to deflect it past Igor Shesterkin.

The B’s were in charge at that point. On one shift, they had the Rangers scrambling and Trent Frederic had Shesterkin out of the net but he could not get it past Adam Fox. The snake-bitten Taylor Hall was also thwarted by Shesterkin on a partial break in off a David Pastrnak set-up.

But the big blown opportunity was a 5-on-3 that lasted 1:42. Their chances were either blocked by the Ranger skaters or missed the net

As you might expect, the big kill provided energy for the Blueshirts, but the Swayman made several big saves. None were bigger than the one on Artemi Panarin, who streak down the right wing alone but Swayman got his glove on Panarin’s offering.

The B’s had to kill off a penalty late in the first and early in the second, which they did – but at a cost. Carlo, who has been a major part of the B’s league-leading penalty kill, had to leave the game after blocking a Mika Zibanejad shot with his right foot, hobbling to the dressing room. Carlo, who has been very good of late, especially on the penalty kill, will visit the team doctors upon his return to Boston to determine the damage.

While that was going to make it a long night for the remaining five defensemen, the B’s pushed the lead to 2-0 at 4:42. Bergeron, who was questionable after taking a puck to the face on Wednesday, was given the go-ahead when X-rays proved negative and he said after the game that the pain level was nothing he couldn’t manage. And he made his presence felt. After an excellent puck-hunting shift from the top line, Bergeron finished it off with his 17th of the season, receiving a Brad Marchand pass and snapping it over Shesterkin’s shoulder from the slot.

Meanwhile, Swayman continued to excel. He made two more in-tight saves on Panarin and then later stoned him on a breakaway.

Late in the second period, Clifton was called for delay of game, but the B’s were able to kill it off and, when he popped out of the box at the start of the third he made it 3-0 just 28 seconds in. After the Rangers turned it over at the Boston blue line, Marchand broke out on a 2-on-1 with the newly freed Clifton and the defenseman buried it shortside for the 3-0 lead, his fourth of the year.

The Rangers finally got one past Swayman when Ben Harpur’s seeing-eye shot from the left point found its way home, snapping Swayman’s shutout streak at 158:47.

That added a smidgen of discomfort to the proceedings, but while the Rangers hemmed the B’s in the Boston zone for the better part of three minutes with Shesterkin pulled for the extra skater, they never got any closer.

Pastrnak was named to his third All-Star Game after he was voted in by the fans.