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DEVILS 3, BRUINS 2

Face down finish

Bruins flattened with 31 seconds left

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Their losing has become so standard, so matter of course, so expected, so mind-numbing, that it's hard to believe the Bruins can come up with new ways to register their nightly L.

But last night, lo and behold, they got there again, a 3-2 loss at Continental Airlines Arena to the Devils, this time with an ending that bordered on bizarre.

John Madden, a Bruin nemesis, totally undressed Joe Thornton on a faceoff to the right of goaltender Andrew Raycroft, leading directly to Alexander Mogilny's winning strike with only 31.4 seconds remaining in regulation. Travis Green, Thornton's right winger, originally attempted to take the draw, but upon positioning at the dot, he errantly banged his helmet against Madden's, leading linesman Pat Dapuzzo to toss him from the circle for illegal contact.

''I love Pat Dapuzzo, but . . ." said a disconsolate Green, who, after Mogilny's goal, picked up a 10-minute misconduct for venting his frustration over the decision.

''It's frustrating. [Madden] was down low, and that made it tough for me to get down low -- and besides, as the visiting team's player, he's supposed to let me get down first.

''Like I say, frustrating, especially when it's Pat, a great linesman."

One-third of the way through the 82-game season, the Bruins are officially on the endangered species list. They have lost nine of their last 10 games, and they are slipping into ''also-ran" status in the Eastern Conference.

It's so bad now that they can't even execute the simple lineup at the faceoff dot. Thornton, on in relief of Green, was poised to pull the puck straight back, ideally out of harm's way, but Madden quickly jerked the puck back between his legs for Mogilny to rip home.

Bizarre. And ugly. And all too predictable.

Meanwhile, not much really changes amid the losing. General manager Mike O'Connell has tinkered a little with the roster, moving out Dave Scatchard, Colton Orr, and Shawn McEachern and bringing in David Tanabe, Dan LaCouture, and Zdenek Blatny.

But nothing changes. The L's pile up like logs at the hearth of broken promises. Once one of the grittiest, proudest franchises in the NHL, the Bruins have taken on the aura of the Washington Generals, and virtually every opponent transforms into the Harlem Globetrotters. Meanwhile, the club's ad campaign has turned into a sad joke, telling fans, ''It's about the Cup!," or leaning on schmaltzy lines such as, ''It's called Bruins!"

What, precisely, is called Bruins? All they do is lose. Maybe not by much (they are now a league-worst 2-11 in one-goal games), but they lose. And there seems to be no way out, no escape plan. Just as the Players Association had no contingency for how to escape its failed talks with owners over a new collective bargaining agreement, the Bruins don't have an answer for their mother of all tailspins.

Asked about the faceoff gone bad, a frustrated coach Mike Sullivan said, ''I don't know what to say. We have two centers on the ice."

One of those pivots, Green, got tossed on a technicality. The other, Thornton, got schooled by Madden, perhaps the game's premier little big man.

Mogilny's shot, a snapping wrister, was a laser that beat Raycroft to the far side. Raycroft, despite being tagged with his 11th loss, had perhaps his best game of the season. He was sharp. He was fluid. And, rarity of rarity, he had a 2-0 lead to work with by early in the second period.

But soon after Sergei Samsonov delivered that lead with only 30 seconds gone in the second, the game shifted entirely to the New Jersey side. The Bruins totally stopped skating, as if someone sounded the 4 o'clock quittin' whistle. They were outshot, 17-4, for the period. If not for Raycroft's 16 saves, many of them stellar, the Devils would have had at least a two-goal lead by the intermission. Instead, the Devils were in arrears by 2-1 (Brian Gionta the goal).

Then came the diabolical third. Jay Pandolfo knotted it, 2-2, with 5:27 gone, finishing off a two-on-one break after slipping behind Hal Gill's defensive coverage. It was a better period overall for the Bruins, but they were constantly hurt by bad penalties, including back-to-backers by rookie defenseman Andrew Alberts, at 10:29 and 13:23 of the third. Every time they showed a slight sign of life, Alberts snuffed it out.

''It's hard lesson, I guess," said Sullivan. ''He's trying to play hard. He's in the learning process."

The ultimate lesson was left to Madden and Mogilny. Thornton finally in place at the dot with 32.6 seconds showing on the clock, the puck went down. Madden pulled it back, Mogilny shot. Game over, in a flash of 1.2 seconds.

''We've just got to get over the hump here," said Raycroft. ''You've got to bear down and not let guys get chances like that. We just can't let guys get those chances. Good teams don't do that, and it's frustrating."

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