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Wanted: Fighting spirit

Bruins hope to pass physical test

Hockey toughness comes in many forms, nearly all of which the 2006-07 Bruins found to be in short supply.

"It's a lot of things," said captain Zdeno Chara, enumerating the key elements of style. "It's playing physically. It's taking checks. It's giving checks. It's blocking shots. And I think you're going to see guys doing the job."

In short, the Bruins, who lost to the Maple Leafs, 4-3, in a shootout in their third preseason tune-up yesterday at the Garden, want to bring some of the growl back to their game. But as coach Claude Julien pointed out following yesterday's late-morning practice on Causeway Street, today's NHL has some restraints on the physical game that didn't exist in the days when the Bruins owned Boston.

It's not that Julien, in his first year behind the Boston bench, is against aggressive play or even fighting. When it's there to be had, he wants his team to have it. He also doesn't want anyone, on the bench or in the stands, to get carried away.

"If you want the Big, Bad Bruins back in town," said Julien, "well, unfortunately, the game has changed. I think the sooner we all realize that, the better we are going to be."

Long gone, and never to return, are the days when benches emptied and feuds were settled, or fueled even more, in bareknuckle bouts at center ice. Today's NHL still allows fighting, even though last year's Bruins under Dave Lewis rarely looked as if they knew it was OK to put up their dukes. Even more confounding, we were sometimes forced to watch the likes of Paul Mara and Brad Boyes, two of the unlikeliest pugilists on the planet, throwing down and squaring off.

Over the summer, in hopes of pumping up the Black-and-Gold testosterone level, general manager Peter Chiarelli added tough guy Shawn Thornton, a free agent winger from the Cup-winning Ducks. Thornton joins Jeremy Reich, an in-season add-on for the Bruins last year, in the enforcer role. Last night, Thornton suited up against the Leafs while Reich took a break.

"What we want is team toughness," said Reich, the 28-year-old winger from Saskatchewan who signed on as a free agent in summer '05. "That's not just fighting, but just overall physical play . . . and if fighting happens, it happens. I think you'll see a lot of guys in here this year who will stick up for each other. There's a good team camaraderie in here."

Reich, who slugged it out for 6 1/2 seasons in the AHL before getting his chance on Causeway Street, squared off a few times against Thornton in the minors.

"I was doing what I thought needed to be done," said Reich, reviewing his work last season. "I was doing that to try to stay up here . . . and, hey, it worked."

Thornton took the same, but even longer, route to the NHL. The 30-year-old winger, touted as a guy who really likes to fight by Ducks GM Brian Burke, was a nine-year AHL vet by the time he became a regular contributor with the Ducks. In three seasons, he logged 300-plus penalty minutes.

"He's no stranger to dropping his gloves," said Reich. "We had a few fights over the years, and there's no doubt, he's a strong guy and that's the reason he's done so well. We know the role. It's not to go out there and try to put up 40 goals. The idea is to go out there and play a physical game, and chip in a goal when we can."

For his part, Julien hasn't been overt in preaching the punch game. He stresses "eliminating gray areas" and providing each player with a strict definition of what he expects. Overall, he wants an aggressive club, especially on the forecheck, a club that works hard, toils endlessly.

"I only want to be the hardest-working team," he said. "You have to be smart and you have to work hard. You can try to go out and play just on smarts, but without the hard work, you won't be successful."

Chara, captain for his second season with the Spoked-B, didn't have a single fight last season, what he said was a consequence of coach's orders. He dropped the gloves in his first exhibition game, and figures he'll do it again. But he also knows he won't be alone.

"We as a team know that we have to get better in some areas - and for sure, toughness is one of them," said the towering blue liner. "We don't need anyone to tell us that. We have to be harder to play against."

The first period came to an end last night with the Bruins in a 2-0 deficit. It became evident as the period dragged on that the Bruins needed an emotional pick-me-up, the doldrums all too reminiscent of last season. But as the horn blew for intermission, Bruins defenseman Dennis Wideman got into a tussle with Leafs blue liner Jay Harrison. Once more, a signal that this year's Boston squad won't be caught standing and looking, and only looking, when it comes time to attempt a kickstart.

"We have to be harder to play against," noted Chara, who sat out yesterday. "And to accomplish that, we have to start right now. We have to stick up for each other, and I think you're going to see a lot of guys dropping gloves."

Maybe not like the old days - but also not like last season.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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