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ON HOCKEY

Chemistry still wasn't quite right

The captain played with bad ribs. The rest of the team played with very bad hands.

All of that, along with a quirky bounce last night that set up Richard Zednik's game-breaking goal, added up to yet another unhappy and unfulfilling season's end for the Bruins -- this one after holding what only a few days before appeared to be an insurmountable 3-1 playoff series lead over the Canadiens.

The captain, Joe Thornton, meeting with the media for four minutes following the bitter loss, revealed that he suffered torn rib cartilage the final weekend of the regular season. Sullen and soft-spoken, the 24-year-old captain confirmed he was shot with painkillers before each game, which, in part, explains his numbing ineffectivness on offense (0-0--0) night after night across the seven games.

Thornton became a more effective player as the series evolved and his ice time increased -- dishing out some heavy hits beginning with Game 3. But he never was able to regain his most valuable asset, his scoring touch. As Thornton got better, physically, the rest of the team slumped. Go figure. His ice time diminished in Game 1, the Bruins mounted their most impressive game in recent postseason history. He got his skating legs back in Game 3, his hitting back in Game 4. And from there, the Bruins went 0-3, Thornton finishing a glaring minus-5 the last two games.

The rest of the lineup, when it counted most, also couldn't put a puck past Habs goalie Jose Theodore, who came to Causeway Street last night and snuffed out all 32 shots fired his way. After taking the two-game lead in the series, and poised to shoo their postseason blues, they once again faded into postseason obscurity.

One and done. Again. The story line changes from year to year. The ending does not.

"When we were up, 3-1, we wanted maybe too much to put them away," said right winger Marty Lapointe. "Sometimes too much is not enough."

The Canadiens won the series on the backs of their No. 1 line, downsized Saku Koivu the pivot between Alexei Kovalev and Zednik. Kovalev swung around the back of the net on the game-breaker, midway through the final period, Zednik potting the 1-0 lead after Kovalev's short shovel hit off the side of the net, about a foot behind the left post. Zednik, with a half stride on Brian Rolston, walked into a cupcake of a rebound that had no business ricocheting out the way it did.

"Somehow it goes directly in front of the net," said a bewildered and frustrated Andrew Raycroft, whose work in net was strong enough for the Bruins to have won the series. "Unfortunately, you have to deal with it -- and it's going to go through my head a lot this summer."

Veteran winger Mike Knuble, who had a club-high five shots playing on a new combination with Thornton and Rolston, was turned back by Theodore on a couple of good mash attempts. One of the best came with a minute to go in the first, and the course of the postseason could have changed had a four-man cage attack of Knuble, Thornton, P.J. Axelsson, and Sean O'Donnell been able to chisel the puck past Theodore. But the Habs goalie held the line.

"I think we played the style of game we needed to play," said the gritty Knuble. "For whatever reason, it didn't go in. I think we had a lot more hockey in us." What made this early ending more befuddling than the others of the past dozen years was the roster upgrade made by the front office in the final days of the regular season. General manager Mike O'Connell added Sergei Gonchar, the game's highest-scoring defenseman. He also picked up Michael Nylander, whose work in the pivot, with Sergei Samsonov at his left wing, was by far the Bruins' best asset on offense.

As the series played out, Gonchar became increasingly less effective. He helped to wheel the puck up at times, but he rarely engaged in the attack once over the offensive blue line. He had only two shots last night. The hope was that he would revive a moribund power play. Never happened. The Bruins went 0 for 1 last night on the advantage and finished a dismal 2 for 25.

The one element O'Connell failed to add at the trade deadline was a true energy player. He attempted to pry the ornery Matthew Barnaby from the Rangers, only to lose the face-wash artist to the Colorado Avalanche (who now are ready to begin Round 2 with Barnaby's sneering kisser front and center in the lineup). Barnaby alone would not have filled the great Thornton gap, or revived the flat-lined power play, but he might have been able to toss some sand into the precision Swiss timepiece that was the Koivu-Kovalev-Zednik line. No one else in Black & Gold could contain them, even disrupt them.

Whenever the Bruins return to work -- a question because of the fast-expiring collective bargaining agreement -- O'Connell will have to fix the power play. He'll also have to find an energy guy. All that, against the chance that some high-end unrestricted free agents will be gone. Veterans Glen Murray, Rolston, Knuble, Nylander, and O'Donnell are all now free to leave, with the Bruins getting nothing in return.

But there is at least an entire summer for O'Connell to decipher all that. For now, there is the lingering hangover of monumental disappointment. O'Connell's Gonchar-Nylander acquisitions were his best in his 10 years on Causeway Street, not only giving the lineup its temporary boost, but recharging and revitalizing a long-dormant fan base. The Hub of Hockey embraced the sport once more. TV ratings during the Habs series soared, even with the almighty Red Sox back gobbling up market share.

Now what? Another long summer, for sure. If the labor strife (lockout) comes to fruition, it will only make the task bigger on Causeway Street. Some of the Baby Boomers who got excited again, only to experience another profound disappointment, could be gone for good.

Even the most faithful fans could have their allegiance stripped to their Black & Gold shorts if free agency guts a good number of the pending UFAs. With about two minutes left last night, the sellout crowd made a hasty and eerily quiet retreat for the exit ramps, few of them bothering to look back. 

in today's globe
 NHL PLAYOFF ROUNDUP: Lightning knock down Canadiens
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Canadiens 2
Bruins 0
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Habs win series, 4-3
 Game 1: B's 3, Habs 0 | Gallery
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 Game 3: Habs 3, B's 2 | Gallery
 Game 4: B's 4, Habs 3 | Gallery
 Game 5: Habs 5, B's 1 | Gallery
 Game 6: Habs 5, B's 2 | Gallery
 Game 7: Habs 2, B's 0 | Gallery

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