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A return to rule of thump

Bruins promise to be a much tougher act

The fact that Cam Neely drew the biggest ovation during introductions at last Tuesday's State of the Bruins event at TD Banknorth Garden - executive vice president Charlie Jacobs, general manager Peter Chiarelli, captain Zdeno Chara, and leading scorer Marc Savard were also in attendance - underscored what season ticket-holders like to see from the Black-and-Gold:

Hammer-and-nails toughness, as personified by the power forward with the baby-soft hands (395 career goals) that turned to granite (1,241 career penalty minutes) the instant he threw down his gloves.

"You saw what led this video: contact," Neely told the audience of approximately 400 guests, referring to an introductory compilation of highlights (as rare as they were) from the 2006-07 season. "It wasn't goals. It was contact. That's a big part of hockey. That's what people love to watch. You may not be able to score a goal, but certainly you can throw a body check."

Talk is cheap, but much of the chatter during the 90-minute session centered around how the 2007-08 club will be tougher to play against, a style that earns a stick salute from this end of the journalistic bench.

Chiarelli, as he's preached repeatedly since the conclusion of last season, promised that the Bruins will be a rougher bunch, referring to the signing of ex-Anaheim tough guy Shawn Thornton and the re-signing of eager-to-scrap Jeremy Reich.

"I don't know if it's the big, bad Bruins of old," Savard said earlier in the week, "but we'd like to be badder than before."

Around the league, in-your-face thumping has diminished over the years, especially following the implementation of the post-lockout rules. Dead, obviously, are the "Slap Shot" goonery days, but also MIA are the down-low scrums, battles, and tussles that players like Neely seemed to thrive on, replaced by the up-and-down fleetness of the new NHL.

Bruins fans, wearied by the absence of Stanley Cups since 1972, have one thing they can remain proud of: tradition. For years, their team was one that centered around hard work, a willingness to finish checks, and a blue-collar style that mirrored the personalities of its followers.

But the 2006-07 Bruins rarely showed such character. They were especially soft at times (29 fighting majors, including a doughnut for the fearsome Chara), allowing opponents to throw heavy hits and employ wave after wave of forechecking without fear of retribution. Some examples:

A humiliating 5-0 thrashing March 25 against Pittsburgh on national TV in which the Bruins threw a mere 10 hits and showed only a desire to scurry out of town. The next day, Dave Lewis ran his bunch through a puckless skate in Ottawa.

No immediate retribution on Jan. 30 when Buffalo fourth-liner Adam Mair punked David Krejci (who was making his NHL debut, no less), knocking the rookie out with a concussion. In the following days, Chiarelli called the team's lack of response disappointing.

A 5-1 disaster against Carolina the day after Thanksgiving in which the fast-moving Hurricanes rolled over the Boston defense, prompting Lewis to pull Tim Thomas in favor of Philippe Sauve.

Based on Chiarelli's words, such disappearing acts won't be tolerated this year.

"It doesn't mean you go and goon somebody every time," said Chiarelli. "But you play heavy on the puck. You finish your checks. That's a mind-set. We're trying to bring that back."

It's no coincidence that one of the few memorable moments last season occurred on Nov. 25, 2006, when Darcy Tucker had taken runs at Chara and Savard during the same shift, and before the Toronto pest knew it, then-Bruin Paul Mara was on him, earning praise from his teammates as well as 17 penalty minutes (instigator, fighting, misconduct).

On Tuesday, Chiarelli referenced Anaheim several times, noting how the hit-first Ducks ran roughshod over Ottawa en route to winning the Cup in a mere five games, intimidating the Senators while not picking a single fight. A significant component of Anaheim's game plan was to plow into the Ottawa defensemen - specifically, Wade Redden - to force them into mistakes and turnovers.

The thumping started with Anaheim's checking line of Travis Moen, Samuel Pahlsson, and Rob Niedermayer. The unit reduced Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley to quivering shells of their trigger-happy selves by finishing checks, tying up their sticks, and plastering them along the boards.

During the regular season, when things got rough, the Ducks (a league-leading 71 fighting majors) turned to Thornton, among others, to tune up opponents. And that's why when July 1 rolled around, Chiarelli reeled in Thornton (12 fights) by signing the fourth-liner to a three-year, $1.55 million contract.

Chiarelli emphasized that in no way will the 2007-08 Bruins be a bunch of ill-tempered thugs. But the second-year GM noted that the presence of Thornton and Reich should give teammates extra space on the ice.

Obviously, there are no guarantees. But if the Bruins are to be believed, they'll be a hard-hitting and hard-working bunch, two traits that should at least make their games more pleasurable to watch.

"Ultimately, you want to see players have a passion for how they play, be proud of how they play, and feel good about the way they play," Neely said. "It's not about if you win or lose. It's about how you're playing and feeling that you put all your effort out there. You should be proud of that."

Savvy about conditioning

While a number of his Bruin teammates suffered alarming downward trends in 2006-07, Marc Savard showed he was worth the four-year, $20 million contract he signed last July.

The No. 1 center had 96 points, good for ninth in the NHL, and with 74 assists, he trailed only San Jose's Joe Thornton and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby in that column.

But that still wasn't good enough for Savard. This offseason, the center, who turned 30 July 17, made a commitment to improving himself physically.

A notoriously big eater, Savard hired a nutritionist whose counsel, along with Savard's hard work in the gym, helped the center trim 10 pounds.

"I told [assistant coach Doug Houda] that I'm going to have some long shifts this year," said Savard, who said he's in the best shape he's been in since he became an NHLer with the Rangers in 1997.

Savard seemed like a lock to break the 100-point barrier last season. But he scuffled through a 10-game stretch from mid-March to early April when he scored only 2 points - partially because of the losses of regular wingmen P.J. Axelsson and Glen Murray, but also because he felt run-down by year's end.

This year, Savard was one of the first veterans to report to Wilmington ahead of the official start of training camp on Sept. 13. He goes back many years with Claude Julien; the first-year Boston coach, who once considered entering the agent business, was part of a group that approached a 15-year-old Savard, who already had representation at the time.

"I think that the playoffs are where we're going to be this year, for sure," said Savard.

Lofty status for the Eagle

With no North American teams eager to take on Ed Belfour, the future Hall of Famer signed with Leksands IF of the Swedish Elite League last Monday, perhaps bringing his NHL career to a close.

The 42-year-old goalie never had the starry reputation of the retired Patrick Roy or the ageless Martin Brodeur. But the two French-Canadian icons are the only goalies who boast more career wins than Eddie the Eagle.

Shockingly in hindsight, Belfour went undrafted. But after one standout season of college hockey at North Dakota, the Manitoba native signed with Chicago. Belfour made his NHL debut on Oct. 18, 1988, with the Blackhawks, then made stops in San Jose, Dallas, Toronto, and Florida en route to 484 career victories, 10 fewer than Brodeur and 67 fewer than Roy.

In recent years, he's been slowed by a creaky back, but that didn't prevent him from stopping 25 pucks last Feb. 24 in his 19th career win - and perhaps last - over the Bruins, while backstopping the Panthers.

He won the Stanley Cup in 1998-99 with the Stars, and his accolades include the Calder Trophy as top rookie in 1991, the Vezina as best goalie in 1991 and 1993, and the Jennings Trophy for lowest goals-against average in 1991, 1993, 1995, and 1999. In 1992, when the Blackhawks lost to Pittsburgh in the Cup final, Belfour won 11 straight playoff games, setting a record that still stands.

Who knows? If goalies go down this year, Belfour might get a call. But if this is curtains for his NHL career, Belfour might be remembered as one of the top 10 goalies of all time.

Etc.

He's one of the Kings' men now

The unfortunate Boston career of Dave Lewis officially came to an end last Tuesday when he was hired by the Kings to serve as an assistant to coach Marc Crawford. Lewis led the Bruins to a 13th-place finish in the Eastern Conference in 2006-07, making one of general manager Peter Chiarelli's first moves arguably his worst. Some factors that led to Lewis's June 15 ouster: poor defensive structure; a passive offensive system; overdependence on veterans such as his checking line of Mark Mowers, Wayne Primeau, and Shean Donovan; lack of trust in youngsters like Milan Jurcina; and a puzzling refusal to call timeouts during critical situations. It was probably no coincidence that core players - Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Stuart (they'll be reunited in LA), Paul Mara, Brad Boyes, Hannu Toivonen, and Donovan, to name several - regressed and had subpar seasons. But Lewis, one of hockey's finest gentlemen, departs Boston with no blemishes on his good-guy character. In a world where successful coaches who are gruff guys far outnumber their counterparts, there will always be a place for men like Lewis.

Jack in the back

Lewis, a former defenseman, undoubtedly will be keeping a close eye in LA on promising blue liner Jack Johnson. The 20-year-old Johnson, originally drafted No. 3 overall in 2005 by Carolina but shipped out of town by GM Jim Rutherford the following year, figures to be in the Calder mix as the NHL's top rookie. The 6-foot-1-inch, 201-pounder is a smooth skater who can quarterback a power play. But Johnson, who played two years of college hockey at Michigan, also has a mean streak, as evidenced by 149 penalty minutes during his freshman season in 2005-06 (a school record). "He could have left after his freshman year and helped out Carolina in the playoffs, maybe on the power play," said former teammate Matt Hunwick, who stayed at Michigan for four seasons. "But to his credit, he didn't think he was mature enough."

Can he ascend with Lightning speed?

With Tampa Bay doing nothing in the offseason to improve upon its goaltending tandem of Johan Holmqvist and Marc Denis, it appears the Lightning are banking on Finnish youngster Karri Ramo to push for a big-league job in camp. The 21-year-old Ramo was a first-year pro in 2006-07, appearing in 45 games for Springfield, Tampa's AHL affiliate. Ramo (15-24-1, 3.13 GAA, .906 save percentage for the Falcons) was called up late in the year, seeing action in two regular-season games, then served as Holmqvist's backup in the playoffs. Ramo's Boston connection: In 2005-06, he tended goal for HPK Hameenlinna of the Finnish Elite League, where Juha Toivonen, Hannu Toivonen's younger brother, was his backup.

In a down cycle

Chara, a cycling enthusiast, didn't attend the Tour de France this summer, as he's done in past years. But the captain watched on TV, lamenting the doping scandals that have disgraced the event. Chara is friends with pro rider Pavel Padrnos, a former teammate of Lance Armstrong on the Discovery Channel team that broke up after this year's Tour. "They just text-messaged him saying the team was done," said Chara. "No call. Nothing."

Future leaders

When Eddie Belfour broke into the NHL in 1988 with the Blackhawks, the Chicago roster that season included one future GM (Doug Wilson, San Jose) and eight future coaches: Bruce Cassidy (Washington), Greg Gilbert (Calgary), Dirk Graham (Chicago), Steve Ludzik (Tampa Bay), Jim Playfair (Calgary), Denis Savard (Chicago), Duane Sutter (Florida), and Trent Yawney (Chicago).

Loose pucks

As he has for several summers, Bruins defenseman Bobby Allen skated at Newton's Fessenden School with a bunch of fellow Boston College alums, including Brooks Orpik, Brendan Buckley, and Mike Mottau. But this summer, two ex-Boston University skaters, Chris Dyment and Dan Cavanaugh, joined the sessions. No word on any slashes or cross-checks taking place in either direction . . . Old friend Yan Stastny, one of three Bruins traded to St. Louis since January (Boyes and Toivonen following him in the pipeline), still retains Boston connections. Stastny, whose younger brother Paul was part of the 2004-05 Denver club that defeated Mark Stuart's alma mater Colorado College in the Frozen Four, was still letting the Boston defenseman hear about the loss this summer. "Wasn't even on the team and still giving me [grief]," Stuart complained . . . Ex-Bruin Mara now calls Broadway his home, but the Bay Stater, who summers on Cape Cod, still follows his beloved Red Sox. Mara groused about how Yankee flamethrower Joba Chamberlain overmatched J.D. Drew in a late-inning showdown last Tuesday. "J.D. Drew did not look good," said Mara. "But I remember the talk about Joba earlier when he was in the minors. He'll be their closer in two years." . . . Former Bruin Dan LaCouture will make a bid to fill Shawn Thornton's spot on Anaheim's fourth line. But LaCouture might have some competition in fellow Massachusetts native Mike Hoffman, the 6-5 hulk. Hoffman, who split time between Manchester and Portland of the AHL in 2006-07, has yet to make his NHL debut . . . After opening 2007-08 in Dallas and Phoenix, the Bruins will pitch their tents in Marina Del Rey, Calif., for nearly a week, using the beach town as their SoCal base of operations for matches against Anaheim (Oct. 10) and Los Angeles (Oct. 12). Not bad work if you can find it.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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