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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Will old habits be tough to break?

The hockey in-laws from Montreal are in town tonight. They're nothing special, but they do possess that infuriating in-law gift: They show up and somehow you feel as if you're the one with something to prove.

I'm sure the Bruins, young and old, can relate to this. There are far too many examples of the Canadiens either stashing the Stanley Cup for themselves or doing something to keep it away from the Bruins.

The last time it happened was the spring of 2002. Without getting into an elaborate rehash, it was the story of a smug No. 8 seed knocking off a No. 1 in six games -- and refusing to call it an upset.

We're approaching the front door of the playoffs again, and some understandable questions linger. What are the biggest differences between these Bruins and the team from '02? And will those differences be significant enough to win some playoff rounds, even if the opponent happens to be a group from Quebec?

Everyone can see the peripheral changes with the team. You can start with previously withdrawn owner Jeremy Jacobs. The guy used to be the NHL's J.D. Salinger; now he's as visible as Jay-Z. Jacobs has been seen, he has been heard, and his money has been felt. It's been impressive.

The atmosphere surrounding the team has changed as well. In the unofficial standings of pro sports teams in Boston, the Bruins have taken a strong hold on third place. They may trail the Red Sox and Patriots, but they are galaxies in front of the Celtics. The Bruins matter again. There are fewer available parking spaces outside the FleetCenter, and fewer unoccupied yellow seats inside the building.

All of that is good, but smart hockey people swear that the substantive stuff can be found behind the goalie's mask. If they're right, local fans will still be saying kind things about Andrew Raycroft on his 24th birthday (May 4).

Through Bruin eyes, the biggest difference between two years ago and today is Raycroft in goal instead of Byron Dafoe.

I'm going to trust the professionals and experts on this one, because the raw numbers don't give many clues. Raycroft's goals-against average this season is 2.01, with three shutouts. Two years ago, Dafoe went into the playoffs with a 2.21 GAA and four shutouts. Lord Byron's bosses never considered him an elite goalie. They also didn't think he'd give up so many bad goals in the Montreal series, a series in which the Bruins consistently outshot the Canadiens.

Raycroft is better than Dafoe, who didn't deliver enough postseason wins to satisfy his employers. What no one knows is how Raycroft will perform during the playoffs, when every twitch and pattern is dissected and explained in an advanced scouting report.

Whenever someone says something like that to Mike O'Connell, the general manager usually smiles and offers some variation of this: "I know he can handle himself. I'm not surprised by anything he's doing."

That's one difference between now and then. Another one can be found on the bench, where a cigar-smoking, Bill Belichick-quoting rookie coach leads the Bruins.

As a player, Mike Sullivan was detail-oriented and cerebral. He used to amaze the beat reporters who covered him by easily recalling a random player's tendencies or some team's record in its previous 10 games. As the leading voice on the Boston bench, he is worthy of Coach of the Year consideration. His contributions go beyond his team's record. They also go beyond the small things he does, such as seeing an article he likes about Belichick, copying it, and placing it in every player's locker.

Under Sullivan, Nick Boynton has matured into an important and reliable contributor. Sullivan obviously has a knack for working with young players such as Raycroft and Patrice Bergeron, but there also hasn't been a veteran who has challenged his authority. He is certainly deserving of one of the highest compliments a coach, regardless of his experience, can receive: He appears to be getting the most out of the players given to him.

Maybe Robbie Ftorek did the same thing in 2002, but this team is more talented than that one. The '02 Bruins had Bill Guerin and Kyle McLaren (pre-suspension). They didn't have anyone like Sergei Gonchar. They didn't have a second-line center they loved, a more experienced Joe Thornton, or a goalie everyone trusted. (I've got to tell you, it hurts to write these things about my man Dafoe. He and Dave Andreychuk -- it's a long story -- are in my personal Black and Gold Hall of Fame.)

Sullivan brought smarts and subtlety to his game, and his team is doing the same thing. The Bruins are a good passing team now. The first passes are clean, and players are receiving the puck when they can do something positive with it. They play with passion, they are exceptional in goal, and they're fun to watch.

That's not accidental or coincidental. You need talent to bring all those things together. You need solid coaching. You need things that can't be quantified, like toughness and discipline.

Do they have enough to win the Cup? I don't know. They have enough to send the bleu, blanc, et rouge home. They have enough to be singing to -- and playing with -- Raycroft on his birthday.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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