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The Boston Bruins have stayed at the top of the Eastern Conference because they've been incredibly consistent all season, getting timely goals and superb goaltending.
The third period of their latest game was a rare exception.
The NHL's best road team will try to bounce back from perhaps its worst 20 minutes of the season when Boston kicks off a five-game trip Friday against the Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey Devils.
A last-place team two years ago, the Bruins (39-9-7) slipped into the playoffs last season and pushed top-seeded Montreal to seven games before being ousted in the conference quarterfinals. Even with that progress, no one could have seen Boston making the leap from being a bottom-tier playoff team to having the most points in the NHL through two-thirds of this season.
That's exactly what the Bruins have done, though, leading the East with 3.38 goals per game and allowing the fewest in the league thanks to the goaltending tandem of Tim Thomas (2.15 goals-against average) and Manny Fernandez (2.16).
Coach Claude Julien's team is 19-4-4 at home and a league-best 20-5-3 on the road.
It looked like Boston was on its way to another win at the TD Banknorth Garden on Tuesday, as Milan Lucic's two goals gave it a 2-1 edge on West-leading San Jose heading into the third period. But Thomas allowed three goals in a six-minute span and the Sharks added an empty-netter to win 5-2, the Bruins' first loss by more than two goals this season.
"We played a 40-minute game, that's the bottom line," said Marc Savard, Boston's leader with 63 points. "We didn't play the last 20 and they're too good of a team not to play (60) minutes of hockey and they took advantage of it."
The Bruins, who were outshot 12-7 in the third, had been 26-0-2 when leading after two periods.
Now they look to avoid losing three in a row, which would match a season high.
Savard is a big reason Boston is among the NHL's best on the power play, but lately it's struggled to get anything going. The Bruins converted 25.4 percent of the time with the man advantage through Jan. 27, but are 2-for-30 (6.7 percent) in their last seven games, including 0-for-5 against the Sharks.
"They're the best team we've played so far this year and it would be nice to get another shot at them (in the Stanley Cup finals)...," Julien said. "Hopefully we can work our way there, but that's a long ways off and there's a lot of things to be done before we can even think about that."
One obstacle in the Bruins' way in the East might be New Jersey (35-17-3), which has a conference-best 28 points since Jan. 1.
Two of those came in a 4-3 overtime victory at Boston on Jan. 29, when New Jersey's Patrik Elias netted the tying goal with 1:45 left in regulation and Jamie Langenbrunner scored his second goal of the game in overtime.
Langenbrunner hasn't cooled off, producing nine goals and four assists in his last eight games. He scored twice in the Devils' 4-2 win over the New York Islanders on Wednesday, his fourth multigoal game since Jan. 27.
Linemate Zach Parise assisted on both of Langenbrunner's goals against the Islanders and also scored twice. Parise has been on fire lately as well, scoring 12 goals in New Jersey's last 15 games.
"I think it was only a matter of time with him," Langenbrunner said of Parise. "When you play as hard as he does, you are going to get rewarded, especially when you have the skill that he has. He puts himself in position to score goals."
One of Thomas' three shutouts came in Boston's 2-0 victory in New Jersey on Dec. 23.
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