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That's what we've been waiting for

Now, isn't this interesting? The Bruins returned to work on home ice last night, their first Causeway Street game of the 2007-08 season, and from the drop of the puck they looked relevant, they looked engaged, and for reasons not too difficult to understand, the paying customers acted as if they were entertained.

Funny how that happens. Once was the time, of course, that someone might have stated the above and risked the following response: "Well, duh!"

Folks, we take nothing for granted anymore when it comes to hockey in our town. For too long, what we've taken most for granted is the fact that anything suited up in Black and Gold will be two tones of boring.

There was the 2004-05 lockout (you might have heard). Then came the miserable 2005-06 season that didn't do much here, other than get the roster gutted, the management team fired, and then the fan base ticked off, alienated, and disenfranchised. And then came last season. Anyone remember that one?

See, there you go, two tones of boring, and an Original Six franchise stuck in the muck of failed seasons and, worst of all, lost identity.

This was a team that woke up one day and didn't know what it was, as if it were infected with franchise amnesia. The fan base, once one of the most loyal in all of sports, ran for the hills, as if afraid they'd catch the same disease.

Now, let's be straight here, 60 minutes and a 4-1 victory do not make a franchise relevant again, and do not magically mend the many broken hearts left strewn around the Hub of Hockey. But at least there was both a pulse on the ice last night, and a bit of a heartbeat in the stands.

Only 2:17 into the night's entertainment (there's that weird word again), incredible hulk of a rookie Milan Lucic dropped the gloves and put a hammering on Tampa Bay's Nick Tarnasky, the pride of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. Lucky for Tarnasky, he inherited a rock jaw, upon which the exuberant, if not frenetic, Lucic dropped about a half-dozen steaming right hands.

The crowd, some of whom no doubt remember when those bouts were common, if not mandatory, loved the sudden outbreak of the sweet science. Lucic, essentially still on a tryout, hoping to stay in the NHL and not be returned to his Vancouver Giants junior team, could quickly become a fan favorite/cult hero in the Hub of Hockey if he continues to play the hammer to his opposite number's nail.

We are a town (shade your eyes here, if necessary, and tell the kids to cover their ears) that still likes our hockey to be high-proof, poured straight into a shot glass, ice only to be utilized as a playing surface. That's not what the NHL sells anymore, which is why a good number of its 24 American-based teams have, shall we say, some spotty attendance figures right now.

Detroit, once the sport's Hockeytown, can't figure where its customers went. To which I can only say, well, duh! Could it be some of those guys on the GM assembly line still remember the pure grit 'n' grace of a Gordie Howe hat trick? Good bet, that, and a good bet that they would stream back to the Joe if the Winged Wheels brought back some of that raw passion.

"If you don't like violence," bellowed former Bruins defenseman Mike Milbury, now an analyst for NESN, commenting to TV viewers after the first period, "then change the channel!"

Milbury, bless his stitched kisser, is obviously a devotee of: 1) old-time hockey and 2) the Pierre McGuire School of Broadcast Shout. McGuire is fast becoming an icon in Canadian broadcasting for his edgy, loud puck commentary. Milbury has the chance to be the same here, and he'll reach his destination much faster if the hometown team keeps playing like Bruins teams of yore and not the Bruins teams of yawn.

Shawn Thornton, recruited in the offseason for his toughness, traded smacks later in the first period with ex-Bruin Andre Roy. By then the Bruins already had a 1-0 lead, which made the bout just more icing on the Opening Night cake. Before the period was finished, Peter Schaefer and Marco Sturm were owners of the goals that provided Boston a 2-0 lead.

At last report, Elias Sports Bureau researchers were being kept overtime in their New York offices, trying to find the last time the Bruins moved to a 2-0 lead in the first. It . . . has . . . seemed . . . that . . . long.

A perfect night? Hardly. The Lightning tightened up in the second and outworked the Bruins, evidenced by their 15-3 shot advantage. They also cut the Boston lead in half only 1:45 into the period when Dennis Wideman reached up high with his stick in an ill-advised attempt to block a shot off the point. The puck deflected into the slot, and onto the stick of Brad Richards, who didn't squander the opportunity.

Wideman, acquired for Brad Boyes in February, remains a work in progress, and some of that work continues to be downright painful. He had no business reaching for that puck.

Another touch of lost hockey art salted the win away for the rebuilding Bruins midway through the third period. Marc Savard, with help from Chuck Kobasew, curled into the slot off the rush and fed across for a charging Mark Stuart on the left side. Stuart quickly buried it for the 3-1 lead.

It was Stuart's willingness, or alertness, to jump up into the play that made the goal happen. Too many teams, and the Bruins have been one of the many, have trained their defensemen not to jump into the play unless a national emergency has been declared. New Bruins coach Claude Julien has obviously told this team to put up its dukes - the New NHL be damned - and he's even OK with his defensemen taking more than three baby steps beyond the offensive blue line.

A couple of fights. A defenseman jumping into the play to deliver the jawbreaker. And a fan base that had to go home thinking, gee, whoever would have expected that lovable Black and Gold mutt to show up on our doorstep again?

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

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