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ON HOCKEY

Step in the right direction

Bruins meet immediate goal

The Bruins didn't score Thursday night and everyone was feeling pretty miserable about the local NHL entry. Only 48 hours later, they scored once in their tie with the Flyers, and everyone in the Black and Gold employ left Causeway Street with a broadening smile. Confidence restored and sense of redemption.

One goal in 65 minutes sure goes a long way in today's NHL, doesn't it?

If ever we needed yet another "Exhibit A" in the argument against goals defining entertainment, it was here in the 6-0 loss to the Leafs and the tie with the Flyers.

In the loss to Toronto, the final score was not a true measure of how the Bruins played. It had more of, oh, a 12-0 feel to it. Sergei Samsonov potted the only goal Saturday, the Magical Muscovite's first strike since Nov. 8, a night when the Bruins outshot the Broad Street Bullies by a resounding 28-8 in the first and third periods. Though their touch around the net left much to be desired -- including Joe Thornton failing to pot an easy winner with two minutes left in OT -- they showed up with much more passion, moved their legs better and got back to the game that has made them a legitimate force in the Eastern Conference for much of the first two months of the season.

"After Toronto," summed up Boston defenseman Nick Boynton, who finished with six shots on net against Philadelphia, only one behind Thornton for the team high, "we just wanted to play the game."

After tonight's game here with the Senators, the Bruins will have played 27 games, the one-third point in the 2003-04 regular season. This is precisely where the wheels fell off last season, the Bruins never able to pull out of one of their worst stretches since the mid-'60s, the malaise costing Robbie Ftorek his job and leading to one more first-round playoff knockout, at the hands of the Devils.

Saturday night, then, was not only about trying to put up a point or two against the Flyers. It was also a not-so-subtle statement that Mike Sullivan's charges can pull themselves up by the skate straps amid adversity and growing skepticism.

Sandy McCarthy did his part, taking on Flyers tough guy Donald Brashear. It wasn't much of a fight, but it was a whole lot more gumption than McCarthy showed the first two months, and it was enough of an emotional spark that even mild-mannered Hal Gill got into a brief tussle later with Keith Primeau. Gill is not about to turn into a pugilist, but it's reassuring to see a little fight in the guys who usually leave that work to the McCarthys of the world. If everyone did their little bit of what has turned into the almost forgotten blue-collar side of the job, then maybe there wouldn't be a need to hire on guns such as McCarthy, and we wouldn't be so upset when the hired guns barely play with water-pistol intensity.

Two-thirds of the regular season yet to play, there remains vast room for improvement in the Black and Gold product. Here is a checklist of things to keep in mind the rest of the way:

* The defense not only needs to improve on cleaning up its own end, but as a group the defensemen have to get more engaged in the play once gaining the offensive blue line. Opening night, Jeff Jillson potted a pair of goals and he looked like the easy answer to the loss of Bryan Berard. On many nights since, especially of late, Jillson has looked timid. The mantra from the coaching staff is to keep the puck out of the net, but with this group of blue liners, that responsibility seems to have been interpreted as "take the night off" at the far end of the ice.

* Samsonov's goal was a start, ending an 11-game skid, but he was penciled in for 35-40 goals at the start of the season. At this pace, he won't score 20. That's big trouble. Sullivan has to keep mixing and matching lines, perhaps even at the expense of busting up the Mike Knuble-Thornton-Glen Murray trio. Murray doesn't have a point in the last two games, his first back-to-back blankings this season. Knuble is 1-2--3 over the last seven games. It might not be a bad time for Thornton and Samsonov to renew their vows.

* Take a look at Andrew Raycroft (8-4-2) as a No. 1 goalie. He was solid again in the 1-1 tie vs. the Flyers. Felix Potvin (4-5-3) was more a victim than a criminal against the Leafs. Without question, Raycroft has been sharper. Stop asking what will happen if Raycroft can't do it and start dreaming about the possibilities if he can.

* Hand McCarthy a picture of Brashear before every game, then stand back for the Pavlovian response.

* Keep Ted Donato on the penalty-killing unit. Recalled from Providence (AHL) Friday, Donato helped the unit go 4 for 4 against the Flyers, after it went only 3 for 5 against the Leafs. The PK requires hard work and intelligence, Donato's trademarks.

* Martin Lapointe is finally skating, playing his best hockey since arriving in the 2001-02 season, and Sullivan has to get him out there for more than the 11 minutes 51 seconds he toiled Saturday. All but a write off at times the last two seasons, he looks capable of emerging. Let's see if he can do it. His emergence as a player wouldn't have the impact of Raycroft being the guy, but it could be close.

* General manager Mike O'Connell should be dogged in his pursuit of help at the point to fill the Berard void. The power play was in an 0-for-17 snooze over five games before the Samsonov PPG. Did someone say power? The Islanders have been melting down. Maybe Adrian Aucoin, Janne Niinimaa or Roman Hamrlik could help?

The Bruins are back at it tonight on Causeway. They beat the Rangers, 4-1, Dec. 8 last season and won only two of their next 10 for the remainder of December. They'll play 11 more times before '03 is out, a busy schedule and the burden of history all rolled into one.

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Toronto 15 6 5 2 37
Boston 12 5 5 4 33
Ottawa 12 9 2 3 29
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Buffalo 12 13 2 1 27
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