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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Black and Gold keeping the faithful

Atlanta’s Kari Lehtonen might not have seen Tom Fitzgerald’s goal, but Boston’s Dan LaCouture certainly had a good view.
Atlanta’s Kari Lehtonen might not have seen Tom Fitzgerald’s goal, but Boston’s Dan LaCouture certainly had a good view. (Globe Staff Photo / Justine Hunt)

They are a team without star power. There are plenty of good hockey players in the Bruins' dressing room, but not one would get picked out of a lineup. Put them shoulder to shoulder and have them walk through Downtown Crossing at high noon and -- unless Hal Gill was mistaken for a Celtic -- they might not get asked for a single autograph. The 2005-06 Bruins still have a chance for a playoff spot, but the road to mainstream recognition is long and winding.

The Bruins returned to the Garden last night for the first time in 19 days and won a thriller when a Brian Leetch shot bounced off the leg of teammate Marco Sturm with 2:41 left for a power-play goal and a 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers. No post-Turin syndrome for the B's.

It was a nice win and a baby step for New England's faceless franchise -- the team with the most loyal fans.

Think about it: A crowd of 16,009 eschewed ''American Idol" and turned out under the threat of snow last night to see the last-place Bruins (in the Northeast Conference) play the mighty Thrashers. That's loyalty.

People who watch the team regularly will tell you Patrice Bergeron is going to be a star. Meanwhile, we know Sergei Samsonov can skate and score. Leetch and Glen Murray are proven veterans. Goalie Tim Thomas is a nice new story and the line of Bergeron, Sturm, and Brad Boyes can make a true Hockey Krishna sit up in his or her seat. Brad Stuart and Hannu Toivonen have a chance to be stars someday. But there are no stars here now. Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Terry O'Reilly, Ray Bourque, and Joe Thornton aren't walking through that door. Cam Neely and Pie McKenzie aren't walking through that door, either. The 2005-06, post-lockout, post-Joe Bruins have some substance but little style.

''That's OK," said veteran Tom Fitzgerald, who scored his third goal of the season in the second period. ''We're flying under the radar a little right now, playing the underdog role."

''You have to see how it develops," said general manager Mike O'Connell, who suggested that Bergeron and Samsonov had the best chance to get recognized downtown at noon.

Despite no presence in the Boston Sports Face Book, the Bruins draw about 16,500 per home game. They have nine sellouts and attendance is higher than at any time since the first year they moved to the New Garden (1995-96). Driving on the Mass. Pike yesterday, I was passed by a US Postal truck and somebody had drawn a spoked-B into the dirty panel on the back of the vehicle. It's not ''Jesus Saves but Espo Scores on the Rebound," but it's recognition in a market that has been thoroughly overwhelmed by the local baseball and football teams.

These Bruins fans are not trendies. They come to the games not so much because they love the Bruins, but because they love hockey. They are by far the most knowledgable fan base in our town. Close your eyes and you can tell what is going on simply by listening to the Garden crowd. You can hear it when the B's get tagged with a cheesy offside call. You can hear it when they clear the puck killing a power play. And there's no mistaking the reaction when two guys drop their gloves. It sounds like victory.

''I've always believed this is a hockey town," said Fitzgerald, who grew up in Billerica and played at Providence College. ''The Bruins have always been big here in Boston. To see the fans showing faith and coming out now, we notice that."

There is, however, evidence that today's Bruins fans are locked in the past. Check out the loyalists who come to the games wearing team jerseys. Thornton/Neely/Bourque/O'Reilly shirts outnumber shirts belonging to today's Bruins by a considerable margin. And you know a large number of men in the crowd are dads who talk about Orr when they watch the game with the new generation of hockey fans.

After a scoreless, sluggish first period that provoked boos from the bowl, the Bruins played a far more entertaining 20 minutes in the middle period and led, 2-1. Murray and Fitzgerald found the back of the net in the middle period. Raycroft, subject of trade rumors (the deadline is Thursday), made his first start in 17 games and played well for all three periods.

The Thrashers tied it on a goal by Ilya Kovalchuk at 7:19 of the third, but the Bruins stayed the course and got the winner on the lucky deflection.

Luck is something that has been in short supply for the Black and Gold this season. But they're playing better than they were before Christmas and it looks like they might have two goalies again and they know their faithful 16,500 will be back on Causeway Street tomorrow night against the Sabres.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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