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Bob Ryan

Bang-up job in their return

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / March 4, 2011

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The game-winner might not have been a thing of exquisite beauty, but it typifies your resurgent Boston Bruins, now winners of seven straight and in sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference with 83 points.

“I knew there was no real reason for me to get in there, but just kind of wait around, see if something popped out, and it did,’’ said Milan Lucic. “And it did and everybody was on the ice, including their goalie, so I just shot it high and hard and it went in.’’

Yup, high and hard. A zinger from the left on a tight angle that soared over Tampa Bay goalkeeper Mike Smith’s left shoulder and into the net with just 3:42 remaining. The final was 2-1, and that’s just fine with the Bruins, who have forged an identity that pleases their coach.

“I thought we really played the game we kept talking about,’’ declared Claude Julien. “It was a 60-minute effort. We wanted to win this game for the right reasons.’’

Claude is into process, and his team has apparently bought into what he’s selling.

“Our focus is to work toward playing good hockey, and the results will be there for you,’’ said goaltender Tim Thomas, who is both a Vezina and Hart Trophy candidate. “We got the result we wanted. We played a good game, and we got the goal we needed.’’

So it was a triumphant return home for the team that went out West and won six straight games, the first time a Bruins squad has done such a thing since the 1971-72 team likewise went 6-0 on a February-March excursion. That squad likewise won its first game back, and the one after that. That squad had names such as Orr, Esposito, Bucyk, Hodge, Sanderson, and Cheevers. That squad won the Stanley Cup, the last Bruins team to do so.

But that team was a certified juggernaut, a Stanley Cup winner in 1970 and an upset victim in the playoffs in 1971. That ’71-72 team was not about to let anyone get in its way. So let the comparisons between that squad and this squad cease right here and now.

No, we must judge this team on its own merits, and the question right now is whether or not this team is worth a serious emotional investment on the part of any Bruins fan. Is this seven-game streak merely a blip on the radar screen, or is it an indication that the 2010-11 Boston Bruins are an honest-to-God challenger for the Cup?

This game was an important one to get, assuming you subscribe to the theory often espoused by both hockey and basketball coaches (and some baseball managers, too) that the first game back after a lengthy road trip is akin to the final game of the road trip, or something like that. At any rate, the thinking is that the team figures the home crowd will get it through, and very often the team lays a large egg.

That’s what some people think, anyway, but it was deftly shot down by Thomas.

“Fortunately, most of the guys on this team aren’t familiar with that cliché,’’ he said. “So we didn’t have to worry about any mental problems.’’

This is not the same team that left here a couple of weeks ago. There are three important new faces. Defenseman Tomas Kaberle and center Chris Kelly arrived on Feb. 18 and they are 6-0 as Bruins. Center Rich Peverley arrived on Feb. 22 and he is now 5-0. Something good is happening.

They know how they want to play. They know how they have to play. This cannot be a free-wheeling, high-scoring team. This is a hard-working, grinding team that must stay disciplined and patient, relying on towering Zdeno Chara to control the game on defense and further relying on its goaltenders (Thomas, especially) to keep the puck out of the net. With 18 games remaining, they have two 20-goal scorers. There are not going to be many 6-5 W’s for this team.

At this point, I doubt Bruins fans are into style points. You’d have to be 43 or so to have any real remembrance of seeing any Bruins skating around hoisting the Stanley Cup. If this is the necessary formula to ensure the first Stanley Cup championship since 1972, so be it.

It was a typical Bruins game because it seemed as if they had 117 good scoring chances against Smith — everything from traffic stuff in front of the net to a muffed breakaway by Nathan Horton. But until Lucic broke the 1-1 tie, the only goal had come off the stick of Steven Kampfer, who received a pass, took two or three measured strides, and fired one past Smith to tie it at 6:06 of period two, a scant two minutes and change after Eric Brewer had gotten one past Thomas that may very well have deflected off Kampfer.

But Julien praised the team for being patient, industrious, diligent, determined, and, most importantly, willing to stick to the game plan.

When those mighty ’72 Bruins came back from their 6-0 road trip, the movies available in Boston included “The Last Picture Show,’’ “The French Connection,’’ “Fiddler On The Roof,’’ “Diamonds Are Forever,’’ and the poignant “Garden of the Finzi-Continis’’ at the late, lamented Exeter Theatre. We can’t hold either today’s Bruins or today’s Hollywood to either of those standards.

But we can appreciate what they did last night. For what they did, in the words of Lucic, was “play the same game we did on the road, with 20 guys doing what they had to do.’’ They are what they are. You might as well embrace them.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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