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PANTHERS 2, BRUINS 0

Bruins not up to scratch

Luongo (38 saves), Panthers end Boston's 12-game points streak

Maybe the Delaware North people should have grabbed Roberto Luongo as soon as he walked into the FleetCenter yesterday, proclaimed him the building's 20 millionth visitor and spirited him off to Yosemite or the Kennedy Space Center or the Delta Queen steamboat for a slooowwww trip up the Mississippi. Anywhere but Causeway Street, where the Florida goaltender/cat burglar filched yet another game from the Bruins last night.

"Tonight we knew was going to be a big challenge," said coach Mike Sullivan, after Luongo (38 saves) and his trap-happy Panther teammates had hung a 2-0 whitewash on the home team before 15,384 hooting customers, who apparently weren't aware of what the Bruins had been up to during their three weeks out of town.

"It was a playoff-like game for them. That's the mind-set we were up against tonight," said Sullivan.

The spoked B's, who were shut out at home for the first time since Dec. 30, had been riding an 8-0-2-2 wave during their last dozen games, their longest run of consecutive contests with a point since their 17-game unbeaten streak (15-0-2) in early 1983.

Yet after a series of high-scoring road contests at Toronto, Philadelphia, and Carolina (and five points taken), Boston was braced for 60 minutes of grinding against a Panther team that had handed the Bruins their last regulation loss here a month ago and held them to a pair of 1-1 ties in Sunrise, Fla.

"Same kind of game," mused center Brian Rolston, as his mates were packing for tonight's road game with the Islanders after ending their season series 0-2-2 against Florida, which holds a 10-8-4 edge against them here. "They trapped it up . . ."

And Luongo, who'd made 43 saves in the 2-1 victory here and stopped P.J. Axelsson on a penalty shot, did the rest, braced by goals from Darcy Hordichuk and Andreas Lilja, who'd had only four between them all season. "We aren't going to win every game, that's the bottom line," said goalie Andrew Raycroft, who performed well enough (30 saves) to have secured a W on most nights.

Had the Bruins cashed any of their three power plays in the first period -- two of them in the final six minutes -- the night might have gone differently. "If we convert on any of those, it's a different hockey game," said Sullivan.

Instead, the Panthers struck first when Hordichuk (just four career goals) tipped defenseman Mathieu Biron's right-point shot past Raycroft at 2:49 of the second period.

"I saw it coming at me, then it went off a leg or a stick," said Raycroft, who'd lost only once (at Chicago in overtime) in the last month. "I have no idea. I was still looking for it when it was in the net for 10 seconds."

The Bruins had won 14 games when they'd given up the first goal, so there was no immediate need for panic. But as the evening wore on and Boston still hadn't solved Luongo, there was a mounting sense of urgency.

After another power-play chance had gone for naught, here came the chance of the night a dozen minutes into the second period, with rookie Patrice Bergeron pouncing on a fat rebound directly in front. But Luongo went asprawl to deny him. "When it isn't in, it isn't in," shrugged Bergeron. "But he made a good save. You have to give him credit."

So it's been all year for Luongo, every time he sees a black-and-gold jersey anywhere on his radar screen. Four games, three goals allowed, 142 saves made. There were more chances -- a shorthanded rush in the first minute of the final period by defenseman Nick Boynton, a close-quarters bid by Axelsson. But Luongo, crouching like a feline, was denying everything that came at him.

All the Bruins could do was keep doing what had gotten them points night in, night out for the past month -- going assertively to goal, even after Lilja burned them on an odd-man rush, converting a pretty pass in the slot from Niklas Hagman with 10:17 to play.

So it was 2-0 now, and unless Luongo ducked out for a bowl of chowdah, the Bruins were destined to take a regulation L for the first time since Jan. 24 and leave the ice to the same catcalls they'd been hearing in December.

That team, though, was taking 6-0 home floggings that had owner Jeremy Jacobs seething in absentia. This one, thanks to their roadwork, is going to the playoffs.

"We're moving in the right direction," declared Sullivan. "We're better today than we were a week ago. And we were better a week ago than we were before the All-Star Game."

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