In a sluggish start to the season -- a 3-3 tie with New Jersey at home followed by a loss in Tampa Bay and a tie in Florida -- the club's weaknesses were far more evident than its strengths.
So, what turned the Bruins' fortunes? Here are a few reasons they're at the top of the Northeast Division:
1. General manager Mike O'Connell called out his top players -- particularly his forwards -- a day after the team escaped with a 2-0 victory in Dallas. If not for Andrew Raycroft's excellent netminding, the Bruins would've been buried. O'Connell was peeved that his best and brightest -- and most financially compensated -- players weren't doing their jobs. There's nothing like your GM publicly kicking you in the pants to get your attention. After O'Connell spoke up, captain Joe Thornton and right wing Glen Murray -- who admitted they were playing subpar hockey -- combined for 10 points in the final three contests with five assists each.
2. Coach Mike Sullivan is as plainspoken, well prepared, and rational as anyone in professional sports, so when he had a meltdown after the first period of the Bruins' game against the Kings in Los Angeles because of his team's ridiculous recurring penalties, the team wasn't shocked because the criticism was deserved. After giving up seven power plays -- three of which turned into Kings goals -- Boston rallied for a 4-3 win and hasn't lost since.
3. The wait is over for Sullivan to reunite Mike Knuble with Thornton and Murray. No matter what other combinations the coach wants to put together, that trio is money in the bank. They proved it last year and since they have been reunited, they've combined for 14 points in three games.
4. Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending. Last year's netminding corps was about as reliable as the New England weather. It's still early, but Raycroft and Felix Potvin, who turned in his best performance as a Bruin against the Avalanche, show signs of being an excellent tandem.
5. Because Sullivan plays everybody, those he relies on most aren't likely to burn out. Last season, Brian Rolston was one of the club's best penalty killers and a fixture on the power play but then-coach Robbie Ftorek overused him and he ran out of gas. Sullivan balances out his players' minutes and now that they've finally gotten the message that excessive penalties equal disaster, Rolston will be fresher longer and more likely to continue his offensive production (five goals and two assists in seven games).
Last year, the Bruins were the best in the league out of the gate but faltered badly. The players say this season has a very different feel. "Sometimes last year, every time there was a shot, you were holding your breath," said Knuble. "Nothing against John [Grahame] and Steve [Shields]. It's not good to talk about guys when they're gone but that's kind of how guys felt. The pucks just seemed to go in and now our goaltenders are stopping them and keeping us in the game.
"The goaltenders have the team's confidence. In Dallas, when we won, 2-0, that was a huge turning point. We probably won a game that we shouldn't have. Then we won two more games we probably shouldn't have, either. It will catch up to us if we keep doing it but we'll take 'em. Any points we get early are so beneficial to us.
"We have tremendous balance. Every line has contributed offensively. Robbie always had to have two tough guys out there [on the fourth line] and they were just really a grinding line. Now they're used in penalty killing and key situations. Sully's showing faith in guys and [they] are responding."
Knuble said part of it is that the Bruins have learned what the coaching staff wants and now they're reacting instead of thinking about how they should react. Asked if his move to the top line was one of the reasons the Bruins started to win, Knuble smiled.
"It certainly looks like that on paper," he said. "It's been fun. I'm not going to lie, I love playing with those guys and I think they like playing with me, too."
Knuble said he noticed a big difference when he made a mistake that resulted in the first -- and only -- Colorado goal. Nothing was said to him.
"They don't get on me about it or anything," he said. "The next thing you know, we ended up getting four. That's the difference from a year ago when it might have been the end of my night. He keeps throwing me back out there and not a word said about it.
"I know I made a mistake and it won't happen again."
After Dallas, O'Connell said he thought Thornton and Murray, along with some others, were in a funk. Thornton played down the controversy, saying it was only a matter of time before they snapped out of it.
"We never get too nervous," he said. "We knew we definitely had the players who could turn it around."
Sullivan said he issued his own message to Thornton -- often.
"We challenged Joe almost daily on this trip to be the best player and he's a guy who is so gifted and when he works and battles and competes, I don't know that there's anybody in the league who's better than he is," said the coach.
"He's certainly been a big leader for us the last few games."
Is the Knuble factor the reason? Sullivan wouldn't commit to that.
"Obviously they enjoy playing with one another so I'm sure they were excited that he was up there and they certainly had success last year," he said.
"At the beginning of the season, it was just a case where we were trying to find line combinations that help the whole group. So we experimented to see who was going to jell and who wasn't.
"I think it's a constant work-in-progress. Right now we've got a couple of lines that are really going and we're happy about that and we'll see where we go from here."
Rolston said the big difference he sees this year is that the rest of the team isn't sitting around waiting for Thornton's line to win games.
"It was just Joe's line doing it last year," he said. "When that happened, the other lines kind of said, `Well, Joe's going to do it,' and that's just not the case. We didn't start real strong and some people were panicking a little bit but we showed what we were made of in the last three games. We're seven games into the season. No one wins a Stanley Cup in October, I'm not trying to make that big of a deal of it but it seems like we're starting to jell as a team.
"That's something we didn't do last year. We didn't play as a team and that's something we're doing a lot better."
In Sullivan's view, the team he saw play a terrible game in Tampa early in the trip is a different club than the one that snuffed out the potent Avalanche attack.
"We were still trying to find our way and figure out what kind of team we were going to be," he said.
"I thought from the second period of the LA game up to this point, our team has really discovered itself and we've got to continue to be that type of team if we're going to be successful."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.