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ON HOCKEY

Bruins getting pushy

They have a little confidence, and that alone is an improvement for the Bruins. For slightly over a month now, they've played like a team intent on making the playoffs, going 10-4-1 (.700), and outscoring their opponents, 47-41, over the last 15 games.

All in all, the February/March Bruins have looked a lot like the club that we expected to see when the puck dropped on the new season in October.

A funny thing happened on the way to instant respectability. To get there, they had to offload about one-third of the roster, all but abandon the hope of a goalie rotation, and rely far more heavily on an overall lineup than the Zdeno Chara/Marc Savard-centric one that was expected to be the sure cure for the bedraggled orphans of Mike O'Connell and Mike Sullivan.

"We've started to find our identity as a team," said veteran blue liner Jason York, among the few Bruins who worked out during an optional skate yesterday at the Garden. "We've been playing real defensively-oriented hockey. Sometimes it just takes time for a team to finds its way -- and we've had some stretches, both good and bad.

"I think there is a feeling here now that, hey, this is our team for the rest of the year. The guys who are here now are going to be the guys to the end. Everyone is buying into the system, and it's all paying off."

Following Sunday night's impressive 4-1 win at New Jersey, the Bruins awoke yesterday to find themselves slotted 11th in the Eastern Conference with 69 points, 4 points behind Carolina for the eighth and final playoff berth. In essence, they awoke to a six-team scrum for two playoff seeds, and with the psychological equity of having three games in hand (68 vs. 65) over the Cup-defending Hurricanes.

Unlike a month ago, when their postseason aspirations appeared all but dead, they at least are positioned to make a frantic run at the playoffs, but they'll have to outmuscle four clubs among the likes of the Islanders, Hurricanes, Canadiens, Maple Leafs, and Rangers to get there.

As of yesterday, only the Islanders had been as hot as the Bruins over the last 15 games (10-2-3). The Leafs (7-5-3) were the only other club above .500. The Hurricanes (7-7-1) and Rangers (6-6-3) broke even, and the fast-fading Canadiens were a grim 5-10-0. If all the percentages were to remain the same down the stretch, the finish would find the Islanders remaining at No. 7 and the Bruins, with a total of 93 points, tucked in neatly at No. 8.

That's the theory. Now comes the execution.

Sunday night in East Rutherford, the Bruins played perhaps their most thorough game of the season, forcing the play deep in the Devils' zone for long stretches. They skated with energy and they forechecked with purpose. With newcomer Joey MacDonald in net, offering workhorse Tim Thomas a well-deserved night off, they built a 2-0 lead by early in the second period, then added another pair of goals in the third, responding quickly after a Michael Rupp goal cut the lead in half.

Rather than collapse under adversity, as they did so many times the first four-plus months of the season, the Bruins remained composed and kept to the game plan. In fact, they out-Deviled the Devils, sticking to a dogged defensive game plan and cashing in on offensive opportunities -- against the legend that is Martin Brodeur.

Question is, can they keep up the beat for another solid month, playing 17 games over 33 days, beginning tonight with Colorado at the Garden?

If so, they'll have to keep up their improved defensive game, as noted by York. They'll also have to buff up a power play that has sagged of late, going 1 for 18 (5.6 percent) over the last four games, not to mention being shut out in six of the last 13 games.

Earlier in the season, the power play was about the only thing that kept the Bruins from slipping into the basement with the hapless Flyers. Now that their overall game is better shaped, and better managed on the bench by Dave Lewis & Co., the power play has gone dormant. Perhaps it is too predictable. Lewis slipped a little wrinkle into it against the Devils, posting Savard at the left point momentarily, but he has been reluctant to employ the towering Chara at the top of the crease other than when the Bruins have the rare five-on-three advantage.

Plenty of guys can shoot off the point -- not to discount Chara's big shot back there -- but no one in the league has his size and his ability to cause havoc in front of the net. He may not have the hands of, say, Dave Andreychuk or Tim Kerr, two superlative power-play scorers with near-intercontinental reach. But Big Z, if assigned down low, could be the bull in the china shop who produces a power-play goal or two per game just by being assigned the crease beat.

For the most part, butterfly goalies in recent years have disputed the adage that goalies can't stop what they can't see. Their drop-to-the-knees methodology often has them blocking screened shots. But Chara not only blocks a goalie's vision, he can sweep aside one, if not both, of the opposing defensemen.

Maybe that's not artful. Maybe that's not as much fun for Chara as pulling back his big stick and firing 100-mile-an-hour slappers from the high slot. But with 17 games to go, and a proficient power play perhaps being the difference between a playoff berth and a tee time, maybe it's time to park the 6-foot-9-inch Chara in front of the 4-by-6-foot net and find out.

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