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Jury's still out on this team

Changes necessary for Bruins to prevail

MONTREAL -- A Bruins fan, are you? I regret to inform you that there is bad news on your doorstep. Your team must play a Game 7 tomorrow night.

That 3-1 series lead over the Canadiens? Gone. Perdu. That means "lost" in French, and that's what the Bruins appeared to be as last night's Game 6 wore on, as the momentum shifted completely, as the Bell Centre noise grew louder and louder, and the atmosphere got more and more festive. Waving their white hankies, the youthful fans, many of whom went for the painted-face look, were positively giddy as they watched their heroes spot the Bruins a 1-0 lead and then come flying back to take out the visitors by a 5-2 score (spiced by two empty-netters) to set up a dramatic seventh game at the Fleet.

Some good news: The Bruins have never blown a 3-1 series lead. They are 14-0 with that advantage. Further good news: They have won their last six Game 7s.

Enough happy talk. This was not a pleasant evening for the Bruins, whose 104 regular-season points and league-best road record now mean nothing. They have lost control of the series, period.

Mike Sullivan isn't going to say that. He's the coach. He's got to take the positive-reinforcement route. He saw some good things last night.

Asked what disappointed him most about last night's performance, for example, he said simply, "The result."

"The result was disappointing," he reiterated. "I thought we played hard and did a lot of good things. After the second period, we had outchanced them. We had our chances to score."

Speaking of scoring, you know it's not meant to be your night when the identity of the opposition's first marksman is Darren Langdon. With the Bruins leading, 1-0, the Canadiens evened things up at 12:37 of Period 1 when, with Andrew Raycroft slightly advanced to the top of the crease, the puck went into the net off either A) Langdon's stick (the official version) or B) his skate (the Bruins' take). The play was subjected to review, but it was upheld, and Mr. Langdon had his third goal in the last six seasons. So we can now say that Darren Langdon has more points in this series than Joe Thornton, although it is probably impolite to go there, however indisputable the statement may happen to be.

The local press was stunned about this Langdon development. Let's just say that none of them awoke yesterday morning thinking he or she would ever be mentioning the words "Langdon" and "goal" in the same sentence. Coach Claude Julien was even asked if he were clairvoyant for giving Langdon increased ice time.

"No, I'm not that smart," he smiled. "He's just a guy you don't have to worry about when he's on the ice. He does the little things, like getting the puck out of his own end. He's not a liability out there. I was happy to see a guy like that rewarded for all the good things he's done for us all year."

Thornton, meanwhile, was involved in the game's most crucial juxtaposition. With the score still knotted at 1, he was finishing up a shift when Montreal defenseman Mike Komisarek, of the Long Island Komariseks, knocked him on his butt. Thornton skated off shakily. On the ensuing Montreal rush, Montreal's omnipresent Saku Koivu put the puck past Raycroft. Maybe it was just me, but this seemed to be highly symbolic of a major momentum shift.

And the fact is the Canadiens dominated the remainder of Period 2 and the first half of Period 3. The Koivu goal had come on only the eighth Canadien shot on goal in the game's first 26-plus minutes. But over the next 20 minutes or so, it was all Montreal. About six minutes into the third period, the Bruins reawakened, led by the ever-buzzing Sergei Samsonov, who brought them back to within one by cashing in on a nice feed from Michael Nylander at 4:36 of the third, and who applied constant pressure to Jose Theodore on each of his remaining shifts. For those of you scoring at home, he was properly cited as the game's third star.

Thornton's woes continue. The big guy is now scoreless through six games, and it's clear that the mentor is getting tired of answering questions about the disappearance of his top scorer. "He was more solid defensively," Sullivan maintained. "But, obviously, he's struggling offensively, and we have to get him going. But he's got a lot of things personally he can draw on from this game."

As I said, it's all about positive reinforcement now.

Tomorrow night's game is no ordinary Game 7. This is a game the Bruins had damn well better win.

After flying under the proverbial radar from October through the Super Bowl, they have captured the imagination of the hockey public, not to mention a lot of generic local sports fans. After three decades of pleading, the fans were finally rewarded by Jeremy Jacobs when the team took the rubber band off the wallet and added Sergei Gonchar and Nylander. Finally. The mystery man from Buffalo was going for the Cup!

The team kept winning and interest has peaked this past week with dazzling TV ratings, and great "Did-you-see-that-game?" word-of-mouth emanating from the great double-overtime comeback victory in Game 4. But this euphoria is fragile. The Bruins need to win this game. They cannot lose in the first round for the third time in three years, and sixth time since 1995; they just can't. They cannot risk squandering all this capital, all this good will. They are coming back, but they are not yet all the way back.

Mike Sullivan used the proper word, all right. People want results.

The Fleet's not going to be a hockey rink tomorrow night. It's going to be a jury box.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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