ST. PAUL -- If the worst is behind them -- and that remains a big if -- then perhaps the best is yet to come for the 2005-06 Bruins. Last night, at least, things got a little better.
''It's a step," said coach Mike Sullivan. ''It's a step in the right direction."
It was a baby step, a 3-2 win over the not-so-wild Minnesota Wild, the key blow coming with 8:58 remaining in the third period when newcomer Marco Sturm deflected home a long-range David Tanabe wrister to break a 2-2 deadlock.
The win, only their 11th this season, broke a three-game losing streak and inched the Bruins to within 4 points of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Typically, mid-December is too early to be concerned with postseason placement, but the front half of the season has been so grim for the Black and Gold that they already find themselves in a footrace for the nearly-all-inclusive playoffs.
A few more wins like last night, and they'll at least make themselves relevant again. After relevance, who knows, perhaps even respectability in the Eastern Conference.
''Our best 60 minutes in a long time," said netminder Andrew Raycroft, who stopped 29 shots en route to picking up only his fifth win of the season. ''It might have been our best 60 minutes of the season."
The lineup had some jump. There was no sign of the dead legs that carried the Bruins lethargically through the previous three games (0-2-1). Perhaps it was the day of rest Sullivan gave them Monday, after they suffered their embarrassing OT loss to the Coyotes the day before.
''It was like we were playing to win out there," said Tom Fitzgerald, who added a key assist to a Sergei Samsonov strike when he subbed for Glen Murray on a line change. ''We were playing to win, going after it, rather than having that mind-set of being afraid to lose. It's a big difference."
Sturm, now with four goals in his six games as a Bruin since the deal that sent team captain Joe Thornton to San Jose, struggled out from the goal line to be in position as Tanabe unloaded his wrister from just inside the blue line. Netminder Manny Fernandez had no look at the puck, unable to get glove or pad on it as Sturm used the inside of his right thigh to angle it home.
''Ugly goals -- that's what we've got to get," said Raycroft. ''We haven't had many of those this year, and we haven't had many breaks at all. We got the ugly ones, a crazy bounce and some deflections. We got some breaks. It's a huge difference."
''Against the Wild," added Sturm, whose speed is an element the Bruins were desperately in need of prior to the trade, ''you always score the garbage goals, and it happened again. But I thought we deserved this win -- we played hard."
Sullivan also made a key strategic change in the third period, one he'll likely employ again tomorrow night in Calgary. For the first time this season, he asked assistant coach Wayne Cashman, who normally watches from the press box and journeys to the dressing room with advice between periods, to join him behind the bench for the final 20 minutes.
To have the veteran Cashman back there, said Sullivan, added energy and positive reinforcement that the head coach felt was invaluable.
''I thought we could utilize his energy for the third period," said Sullivan. ''At that point, I'm more concerned about line matches -- I can't see everything -- and I thought he brought a lot of energy. He's invaluable [in the press box]. He sees a lot there and helps us make adjustments. But his insight on the bench, and being positive all the time, that's just a great way to motivate people."
Former Bruin Brian Rolston gave the Wild a 1-0 lead midway through the first period, connecting for a power-play goal off a dandy backhand drop pass feathered by a charging Marc Chouinard. Only 90 seconds later, Patrice Bergeron knotted it when he barreled into the slot and cashed in a puck that came his way via a fluky carom off the rear boards.
Samsonov's goal in the second, a tip of Fitzgerald's half-slapper, provided a 2-1 lead, but that was negated on another Wild power-play strike, ex-Bruin Randy Robitaille roofing a rebound of a steaming Kurtis Foster slapper.
''We've coined a phrase here the last few days, and that's, 'Hunt pucks down!' " said Tanabe. ''We want energy and intensity. We've begun to figure out that if we're going to win, we have to play extremely hard. If we go out and play our hearts out like that every night, then we'll get good results."