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ON HOCKEY

This road looks awfully familiar

This year, they can't get tripped up again

For the skeptics out there, and there are a few, the Bruins will have to show a lot more than a 4-1-1 road trip to make the lingering memory of 2002-03 disappear. A season like that makes for a doubting fan base.

"No question," agreed veteran center Brian Rolston, prior to last night's listless 2-0 loss on Causeway Street to the Carolina Hurricanes, "and there's no reason they shouldn't feel that way."

It's hard to get over the hangover of the dastardly fall that followed last year's dynamic start. For the first two months of the season, Robbie Ftorek's Bruins were the hottest team in hockey. A 4-1 win over the Rangers Dec. 8 bumped their record to 19-5-3, and who was to know then that they would win only 17 of their remaining 55 games? Ftorek ended up fired, nothing much changed under general manager Mike O'Connell's tutelage behind the bench, and yet another first-round punchout awaited in the playoffs.

All of that, along with 31 springs gone by with no Stanley Cup, makes for some, uh, reservations. No matter how well coach Mike Sullivan's charges play here in October, November, and even into December, there will be a certain level of justified skepticism surrounding the product. Last night's blanking does not help clear the cobwebs.

"Probably a disappointment in the energy level and the emotion level," summed up Sullivan, his squad 0-1-1 on home ice. "We couldn't seem to muster the energy . . . to be effective out there.

"We couldn't find the energy. We couldn't find the emotion -- and that has to be the foundation of this team."

We're New Englanders. We know the drill. All too well. We worry. In the Bruins' case, we only have to flip the pages of the club's Official Guide and Record Book back to last season for another heaping dose of discomforting reassurance.

"We have so many different players," said captain Joe Thornton, noting the dramatic change in faces around the dressing room following the morning workout. "We're all working under one system, hunting down pucks, and I think last year we learned a lesson from our big start -- we have to stay patient and on an even keel."

All that, while those around them aren't necessarily doing the same. The fans are restless. O'Connell is, too, which in part led him to lambaste his high-profile forwards following a win in Dallas that has officially been chiseled into the "stolen" column of Andrew Raycroft's resume. And so, too, is Sullivan, who turned a darker shade of pale when he saw his squad three times face 5-on-3 disadvantages Saturday night at LA. Two men short, three times, in the first period.

"I don't think I've ever seen that before," said Sullivan, pondering whether the sloppy start in LA was a record, ignominious, or otherwise. "And most of the penalties were penalties. My comment [between periods] to them was, `What's it going to take for you to figure this out?' I mean, it's no secret that it takes discipline to win, and we're not going to be a team that beats itself."

None of that guarantees Sullivan's spoked-B's from slipping into last season's kind of backslide. But the remainder of the road trip, and the obvious show of urgency from O'Connell and the coach, underscored a change of mood around the team.

There is an urgency here now, and deservedly so. O'Connell showed it over the summer when he began to change the dynamics of the club, first with the offloading of Jozef Stumpel. Then came the addition of Sandy McCarthy, the signing of free agent Felix Potvin, the waiver-day trade to get Travis Green, the addition of kids such as Raycroft and Patrice Bergeron and Jeff Jillson.

Contrary to popular thought, this is not a club that will go as far as Thornton, Glen Murray, and Sergei Samsonov will carry it. It didn't go far with Bill Guerin in the mix the prior season, when Montreal delivered the playoff punchout. Minus Guerin, roughly the same core couldn't get by New Jersey last spring.

If we're going to see a more consistent product this season, and if we're going to see better results come spring, then there has to be a lot more production from lines two through four. Thus far, we've seen it, for the most part.

The offense-challenged backline also has to get far more into the offensive swing of things. Witness: Jillson, with three goals and one assist thus far. Since Ray Bourque's departure, 3-1--4 from the backline was about a half-season's output for the entire defensive unit.

But above all, if change is truly upon the 2003-04 Bruins, it has to come from the goalies. Ultimately, it's left for Messrs. Potvin and Raycroft to tell us if the glass is half-empty, half-full or teetering on the edge of the sill, about to shatter.

Everything else must be better. But even if everything else is better, it won't matter unless Potvin and Raycroft are providing the night-to-night chance to win. For the first two weeks, they've looked capable, at times sensational -- Raycroft in the win at Dallas; Potvin with a pair of sparkling glove saves in LA amid all the penalties. Raycroft was sharp again last night, keeping his tired surrounding ensemble in it through late in the third period.

"When you're winning, everything feels great," said Thornton, whose 8 points lead the Bruins in scoring through eight games. "Right now [prior to facing the Hurricanes], we're feeling great."

There are 74 games remaining in the regular season, and then the unchartered waters of April and May and June. The Bruins have changed. They look better, more viable, both on paper and on ice. It's everything we said last year until the pressure was turned up, the defense wobbled, the netminders crumbled, the coach got fired, and the sky fell.

This time around?

"You know, looking back, I think everyone was working hard, but I don't think we were working hard as a team," said Rolston. "I think everyone is on the same page now. You look at last year, and you have Minnesota out there -- not the most talented group -- but they were all buying into the system. They were a group, a team."

It's beginning to look that way again here in the Hub of Hockey. The best news of all is that it sounds as if no one wants to be fooled again -- in the stands, in the dressing room, or in the front office.

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