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ON HOCKEY

Some more stops would be good start

Nearly three months -- three very long months -- into the season, the Bruins are still seeking many things.

Team identity leads their list of gotta haves.

Are they a skill team? No, because their best raw skill, embodied in one player, left town in the hurried jettisoning of Joe Thornton to San Jose.

A crash-and-bang team? No, and no.

A speed team? Not really, although their speed has improved in recent weeks. Acquisitions David Tanabe and Marco Sturm are two of the fastest Bruins in many years. Nonetheless, there was that astute fan in the Garden's upper balcony last night, perhaps a distant cousin of the Gallery Gods, who bellowed, ''Start skating!" with 10:40 gone in the middle period.

Don't even ponder the thought of a muscle team. There is no such beast in today's Hakuna Matata NHL. Long ago, muscle meant fighting and intimidation and raw emotion. Today, it's all strength and conditioning. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but fans don't find fitness all that exciting. They may pay dearly for six packs, but they don't give a hoot or a holler over six-pack abs.

Truth is, 34 games into their 82-game season, the Bruins still stare into the mirror on any given night and wonder just who, or what, is staring back at them. They remain very much what they were when Thornton was still the hub in the Hub of Hockey. Much of their identity was tied up in Jumbo Joe, and most nights, to the consternation of management, he didn't deliver.

Nearly a month later, no one else is bringing the goods with any consistency, either. Which brings us to the goalies, who, as the season has played out, have made their way higher on the totem pole of undeliverables.

Originally penciled in as two of the club's strongest assets going into 2005-06, both Andrew Raycroft and Hannu Toivonen, last night's winner in a 4-1 triumph over the Leafs, have yet to get the job done between the pipes. They've had some decent nights, Toivonen more of them than Raycroft, but as tandems go, they've been two more reasons why the season has been somewhere between a stall and free fall.

Toivonen, 7-3-4 in a 12-16-6 season, slipped into the No. 1 job with his win over the Leafs. He made some superb stops throughout, a couple in the early going when another slow-to-warm start found the Bruins trailing, 8-2, in shots with 11 minutes gone. A similar slow start in their previous outing, with Raycroft in the cage, found the Bruins down on the scoreboard, 3-0, in the opening five minutes in Calgary.

High on the list of gotta haves: better starts. No matter who's in net, even if it were to mean calling Tim Thomas up from Providence, they have to find a way to begin the night with a little hop, some charge out of the gate. Just as they search for their team identity, they too often search for energy as well. Overall, they begin their games way too cautiously, a telltale symptom of a struggling team.

Toivonen's best work came early in the second period while protecting a 1-0 lead. He dropped to his trademark split at 6:40 and turned away a Bryan McCabe slapper from the right point on a power play. A little less than two minutes later, the Finnish rookie smothered a Tomas Kaberle slapper as the Leafs defenseman unloaded a steaming shot from the left side. And at 8:40, McCabe unloaded another huge slapper, and the Garden erupted when Toivonen cut it down, a smothering thud from his pads cuing up the sellout crowd of 17,565.

''As a team, we needed this really bad," said Toivonen, who made 26 stops. ''It's 2 points, and now it's another game [tonight] -- we have to be ready. We've come together a little here. There's been a couple of things going on around the team [including the trade of the franchise center], and it's been tough. But we can't feel sorry for ourselves."

By early in the third period, the Bruins had a 3-1 lead. Toivonen's nearly airtight work bought them the time and room to put a couple by Mikael Tellqvist. Funny how good goaltending changes things, no? Even Alexei Zhamnov, without a goal since the spring of 2004, tapped in a backhander for his first strike in Black and Gold. Hard-hat center Wayne Primeau popped one in for the two-goal lead in the third.

Goaltending doesn't provide a team its identity, but when good enough, as it was last night, it allows a team to find one.

''Exactly the point," said veteran blue liner Brian Leetch, who had his best night as a Bruin, chipping in with three assists. ''Hannu made those saves, especially when the Leafs had the power play, and that allows you to build some momentum. All the good work you've done 5 on 5 begins to mean something. Even the other night, when we were down, 3-0, in Calgary, Razor [Raycroft] stoned 'em the rest of the way. We lost. But we were sending guys in for chances, playing well. Again, it's all about the momentum good goaltending gives you."

Lo and behold, guess what happened after the Primeau goal? A little bit of what might be labeled team identity began to emerge. There was some noticeable jump in the lines. Travis Green got Leafs captain Mats Sundin all hot and bothered, the talented Swede pushing Green away in frustration. Brad Stuart drove a Blue and White forward hard into the boards.

All in all, some interesting traces of speed and energy and edginess, commodities rarely seen from the Bruins thus far in 2005-06. Was that all about the goaltending? Of course not.

But Toivonen did his part, and did it exceptionally well, and slowly, shift by shift, the rest of the product began to emerge. Tonight, another dance with the Leafs, this time in Toronto. Who will be in net for the Bruins? It has to be Toivonen. That much has been identified.

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