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ON HOCKEY

First and foremost, Thornton line must shine

The way it ended yesterday is, quite frankly, the way it's going to have to be in April. A big Joe Thornton check, followed by a snap of the wrists by Glen Murray, and most everyone in the sellout crowd of 17,565 filing out of the Vault feeling as if they'd just won a Day With Ray. "Sometimes you get lucky," noted Murray, whose winning shot was the third Boston goal of the day that Flyer goalie Robert Esche should have pocketed. Front-line goaltending it was not.

The postseason is fast approaching, and if the Bruins are finally going to do a little business in April and May, it will have to be the likes of Thornton, Murray, and their left winger, Mike Knuble, who lead them. The offensive heavy lifting is the obligation of the Seven Hundred Pound line. That is nothing new. The top line has been contained the last couple of postseasons, and if it doesn't post respectable numbers this spring, it again won't be a respectable spring for anybody on FleetStreet.

"We want to carry the team," said Murray after scoring his 28th goal, acknowledging his line had been feeling some measure of frustration after going three straight games without a point. "Maybe it's been a case of trying to do too much sometimes. But, hey, you aren't going to score every game -- plain and simple. That's the game. It's proven."

Here in the dead-puck era, it's proven over and over and over again. Every team in the Original 30 is carried by its first line, and every first line has more bad days than good. Goaltending and trapping carry the day. You might have heard?

Ultimately, though, the team that survives four rounds of the playoffs will see two or three of its forwards step above the fray for the better part of eight weeks. Here in the Hub of Hockey, it will have to be Thornton and Murray, because the idea that the all-but-anonymous Messrs. Frick and Frack otherwise will get it done is hockey hogwash.

Yes, others need to be heard from on the scoresheet, and that was true yesterday, too, with goals by Andy Hilbert and Ted Donato. But we all know that Thornton and Murray are the 3-4 hitters in the Bruins lineup, the meat of the order, and three straight games of 0-0--0 in the playoffs will translate into another quick dismissal.

When Murray snapped home the winner, his ice time for the last four games totaled 92:43. Thornton's stood at 94:38. And Knuble, on the bench because play drops to four-on-four in OT, stood at 88:28. Total for the trio: 275 minutes 49 seconds, or about 4 1/2 hours worth of sweat to produce one goal.

"We've had our chances to score, it just didn't happen," said Jumbo Joe, unfazed by the trio's dip of late. "I don't get frustrated. It's the way the game goes, in cycles."

Thornton's play on the winning goal actually was more impressive than Murray's shot. Spotting ex-Bruin Mattias Timander moving with the puck, Thornton shifted up a gear and pasted him to the rear boards, ultimately leading to the puck squirting toward the slot. If not for the hit to Timander's front fender, Murray wouldn't have been left with the perfect setup near the inner edge of the left circle.

"He made the whole play because he finished his check," said Mike Sullivan, sounding like a coach who has preached that kind of commitment for 66 games now. "That's the type of thing we need to do as a group all the time. Obviously, when you have your best player do the little things out there, it goes right down the bench."

Similar aggressiveness could be the key to the Bruins reviving their power play before it's too late. They were 0 for 1 against the Flyers, and now have been shut out on the man-advantage in six of their last nine games (3 for 28 overall). Thornton is usually in control of the puck on the power play, either behind the net or along the halfboards, and doesn't have to look to make the kind of devastating hit that he dropped on Timander. But if he can figure out a way to be similarly aggressive while holding the puck -- and maybe getting the opposition's penalty killers to shy away a little -- it might afford him some better chances to score. Thornton has scored only three power-play goals all year, and only one since Nov. 11. That's one power-play goal from Thornton over Boston's last 51 games.

"Those guys have been unbelievable for us," said Donato, referring to the first line. "They've carried us for large parts of the year, and they'll continue to do it. But it's nice to have other guys to keep the ship moving forward, too."

Donato was one of the "others" vs. the Flyers, knocking home a gimme that squirted out of Esche's control, after Donato first applied a valuable tip to a Dan McGillis long-range shot. Hilbert was one of the "others," cashing in a fat-'n'-juicy rebound off of Esche that came compliments of a Craig MacDonald wrister off the right wing. Without those others, it wouldn't have gone to OT.

But without the Thornton hit and the Murray shot, the ship most likely would have remained in dry dock. April approaches. It soon will be time to sail. Ultimately, it will be Thornton and Murray who determine whether or not it's another cruise to nowhere.

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