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ON HOCKEY

Recent patch puts O'Connell on thin ice

Mike O'Connell, the man Jeremy Jacobs said he wouldn't want to be right now, exited the Bruins' dressing room around 4:20 yesterday afternoon. Nothing changed. What had been a 13-game odyssey to the unknown had been stretched to 14 games with a 2-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. What had been a hard job to begin with, even before Jacobs banged the table for change Friday, was another day made significantly harder.

 

No win. No trades. No easy way out.

"That's OK. If I were him," said O'Connell, managing the tiniest morsel of humor at a time when laughs have grown almost as few as goals on Causeway Street, "I wouldn't want to be me, either."

The mission here is self-evident, and perhaps impossible. Contacted by the Globe Friday for a comment on his team's travails, Jacobs said he was counting on changes being made, and directed that charge to O'Connell, who has been in front-office residence on Causeway Street for nearly 10 years. This year looks so much like last year, said Jacobs, "it's frightening."

Jacobs didn't say O'Connell had to make trades and right the listing ship or suffer the consequences, but his words added up to the obvious. After a harrowing 2002-03, someone is headed to the gallows if 2003-04 is indeed a repeat, and that someone was wearing a suit and a brave smile as he headed out of the Fleet last night.

"I can make a trade any time, like always," said O'Connell, "but I'm not going to give up something for nothing." No one can announce a deal in the NHL now until Dec. 27, the holiday trade embargo some 13 hours into effect when the Bruins took the ice for their 1 o'clock matinee against the former Former Forever .500s. Even if The Answer comes screaming over the telephone line from another of the Original 30's GMs (to wit: "THIS IS GLEN SATHER -- TAKE TOM POTI, PLEASE!), we won't know that until the end of the week.

In the meantime, O'Connell, the man with the owner's tightening grip around his neck, at least outwardly appears to be unflappable.

"I always look at it that way anyway," said O'Connell, referring to the inherent pressures of being a general manager, ratcheted up some by Jacobs's comments. "It's really up to me to put the team together and to try to turn it around."

So be it, is what that all meant. Jacobs owns the team, and has for almost 30 years, and ownership has its privileges, one of which is to demand better work out of the hired help. Jacobs said he wanted to see more from the players, voiced his disappointment over their tepid efforts of late, and said roster changes were within "vision."

No one in the dressing room expressed shock at the words. Team captain Joe Thornton, in fact, said he hadn't read the comments, hadn't seen the paper.

Apprised of the owner's words in paraphrased form, Jumbo Joe casually said, "Well, it's his team, and he can say whatever he wants." The captain also said, in reference to the day's efforts, "It's a good start for us -- we played hard and deserved the 2 points."

Marty Lapointe, one of the very few Boston players who has played with a burr in his saddle over the last month, said he was not shocked at Jacobs's pointed comments.

"We're all grown men here," said Lapointe. "And we're going to get out of this. Yeah, it's a mess right now, but still, we aren't dead last, either. We have a good team and we'll get it going. What was said, it's something you can't control. But if you're in this business and you can't handle criticism, you shouldn't be in the business."

Now O'Connell must go out and play Monty Hall, hoping not to be left with a braying donkey when Door No. 3 swings open. If he is, he'll end up riding it out of town. Did someone say pressure?

He was working the phones Friday, prior to the holiday embargo, but said again yesterday that there wasn't an appealing offer out there. He has talked about deals to bring in a defenseman and he has talked about deals to bring in a forward. Still, nothing. At least he doesn't have to find a goalie, which too often has been the bugaboo in the Hub of Hockey.

The gaping hole in execution has been on defense, where the Bruins have a collection of support personnel, but no true No. 1 or No. 2 blue liner. Their best backliner, Nick Boynton, some nights looks like a No. 2, many nights looks like a 4 or 5, and a few nights has plummeted off the charts. Yesterday, so stretched for help at the power-play point, coach Mike Sullivan parked Steady Teddy Donato above the left circle.

Up front, without the defensemen delivering the puck consistently (forget the expression "lug the mail" with this crew), the forwards have been able to fashion only what amounts to a one-hand-clapping offense. No one scores off the rush because there is no rush. They have been shut out four times at home this season. In seven of the last nine games, they have been unable to score more than two goals.

A time of change is upon the Bruins. For a player or two in the room, the time will mean a new playing address and another team's name on the paycheck. For O'Connell, the time is a windup clock, and now he must find the deal(s) to keep it ticking.

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