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Alberts back after surviving line change

MONTREAL -- The component of the Bruins makeover that has drawn the most attention is the front office overhaul that ushered in general manager Peter Chiarelli, coach Dave Lewis, and assorted other management bosses (several wielding Harvard diplomas).

But on the ice, the most drastic overhaul has taken place on the blue line: Only one current Boston defenseman was on the 2005-06 opening night roster when the Bruins fizzled against Montreal in overtime.

And he was a rookie.

This season, second-year defenseman Andrew Alberts, despite his limited NHL pedigree, can be looked upon as the old guy in one regard: His blue line mates from last season are all gone. Brian Leetch is still unsigned. Hal Gill is in Toronto. Jiri Slegr is in Europe. Kevin Dallman (Los Angeles) and Ian Moran (Anaheim) are in California.

That leaves Alberts, just two seasons removed from his Boston College days, as the only holdover defenseman. Last year, in his NHL debut at the Garden, Alberts logged a mere 5:59 of ice time during nine shifts, spending 2:08 on the sheet while killing penalties.

``The Bruins revamped their organization, so they're starting from square one back again," said Alberts, who made the trip to Montreal but did not play in last night's 5-2 exhibition win over the Canadiens.

Such shuffling was expected after the Bruins entered 2005-06 frighteningly thin on defense, asking the aging Leetch to play 30 minutes a game (he played 31:23 in the season opener) and hoping Gill could adjust to the league's new rules.

The leaky defense couldn't hold up to opposing assaults, leading to the swap that brought Brad Stuart from San Jose. During the offseason, management bolstered the defense some more, trading Nick Boynton for Paul Mara and signing Zdeno Chara.

While Chara, Stuart, and Mara should play the most among this season's defensemen and contribute to the offense, Alberts is aiming to make himself a bigger presence. He's not flashy -- his 1-6--7 scoring line in 73 games last year is proof enough -- but the 6-foot-4-inch defenseman has shown one constant throughout his career: improvement.

While in high school, the Minnesota native never got a sniff from a Division 1 college, playing two years of junior hockey to catch BC's attention. The Bruins took him in the fifth round of the 2001 draft. After Alberts, a first-team All-American his senior season, concluded his BC career, he finished the 2004-05 season in Providence. Alberts credited the brief AHL stint with helping him make the parent club last year.

He's not the only oversized Bruins defenseman to see year-to-year gains. In 1997-98, a young Chara had just one assist in 25 games with the Islanders. The following season, Chara had two goals and six assists in 59 games. But once Chara was traded to Ottawa, the 6-foot-9-inch defenseman grew into his role as a two-way player, putting up a 16-27--43 line in 2005-06.

As a rookie, Alberts had his share of hiccups. He was demoted to Providence for a short stretch. Former Boston coach Mike Sullivan kept him on the bench at times. Alberts even skated up front for the first time, seeing fourth-line duty for the sputtering club.

``It was a good learning experience," Alberts said. ``You see the game from a different perspective. But I never played forward in my life. So when [Sullivan] threw me out there, it was a shock. But the 10 games I played there, you learn the other position and take a different view of the game. You learn about having a little bit more patience, knowing what's behind you and what's in front of you.

``So I think it was a good thing for me. If they need me to jump up there and play fourth line a couple times, I could do that, too."

But Alberts, who spent his offseason working out five times a week with a group that included Minnesota pros Jordan Leopold, Grant Potulny, and Keith Ballard, isn't worrying about skating regular forward shifts.

``I'm just going to play my game like I did last year at the end of the season," he said. ``The beginning of the season, I was all over the place. Now I'll just play solid D and not worry about points or anything. If the opportunity arises and the coaches want me to step up and be more offensive, I will. But my first job is to keep the puck out of the net."

Rookie Phil Kessel, seeing his first NHL action, centered the Bruins' top line last night between Marco Sturm (two goals) and Glen Murray, and recorded two assists. Tim Thomas started in goal and played two periods before Brian Finley took over in the third. Montreal captain Saku Koivu played for the first time since suffering a left eye injury in last year's playoffs . . . The game drew 20,265 to the Bell Centre . . . Ex-Bruin Sergei Samsonov did not play for the Canadiens. Samsonov, sent to Edmonton last year for Yan Stastny, Marty Reasoner, and a 2006 second-round pick the Bruins used to nab Milan Lucic, is expected to play in tonight's rematch. He should play on a line with Alexei Kovalev and Mike Ribeiro . . . The Canadiens will hold a press conference this morning to announce the retirement of Ken Dryden's No. 29 and Serge Savard's No. 18. The press conference was originally scheduled for last Wednesday but was postponed following the shootings at Montreal's Dawson College . . . Chara, Murray, and Wayne Primeau served as Boston's assistant captains last night.

FROZEN TREATS: For the latest information on the Bruins' preseason progress, go to www.boston.com/sports/

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