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Back in Black (and Gold)

Posted by Danny Picard January 29, 2009 05:56 AM

A sold-out Bell Centre crowd isn’t supposed to root for a rival goaltender — ever. But as Bruins goalie Tim Thomas played for the Eastern Conference All-Stars in Montreal last Sunday, those in attendance couldn’t help but recognize his brilliance.

Thomas allowed only three goals on 22 shots in the third period, then held the Western Conference scoreless in the shootout, leading the East to a 12-11 win. For a short time, there was a sign of respect. It was a sign that hockey in Boston was once again relevant. It was no fluke. And for that brief moment, you could almost sense Canadiens fans witnessing the revelation firsthand.

“We know we’re doing something well because we weren’t that well received from the Montreal fans, but by the end of it, in Timmy’s case, they were cheering him on because he made some big saves and gave us an opportunity to win,” said Bruins — and Eastern Conference — coach Claude Julien. “Eventually, they don’t have to like us, they just have to respect us, and I think that was the case this weekend.”

Fans in Montreal aren’t the only ones noticing. The other 13 teams looking up at the first-place Bruins should have an idea by now as well.

With less than 35 games remaining in the regular season, the Black and Gold are back to work after an All-Star break that not only showcased some of the team’s finest talent, but healed it as well.

Injuries to key players were the theme of the first half, but besides Marco Sturm (season-and-playoff-ending knee surgery), most of those players have fully recovered. Patrice Bergeron (concussion), Andrew Ference (tibia), and Milan Lucic (shoulder) practiced with the team over the last two weeks and returned Tuesday night against Washington. Leading goal scorer Phil Kessel (mononucleosis) is back on the ice this week.

Lucic returned after missing seven games prior to the All-Star break. Bergeron sat out 15 games after being injured on Dec. 20, and Ference missed 31 games with a broken tibia, suffered when blocking an Andrei Markov slapshot on Nov. 13.

“It’s been long,” said Ference, who had seven assists and a plus-nine rating in the first 16 games he played this season. “It would be a lot more frustrating if our team was losing and having a tough time, but I think all the success has helped. It’s made it a little bit easier. Obviously you want to be a part of it, and kind of get involved, but it’s much easier watching your teammates have a real positive thing going on. You show up to the rink every day, and everybody’s in a pretty good mood. I’m obviously raring to go, but it could have been a lot worse.”

Following the Capitals, who are in second place in the East, the Bruins have games against the other top six teams in the conference (New Jersey, the Rangers, Montreal, and Philadelphia), and that makes for the biggest test of the regular season to date.

All-Star weekend came at the perfect time. “Definitely, some guys were in need of a break,” said Ference. “It’s more of a refreshed bunch of guys that came in here. Added a little spark again.

“The next couple of weeks, we have some really good teams that we have to face,” he added. “This is the gut-check time. You have no excuses, you come off a break, you have mostly everybody back right away, so it’s time to put up. We’ve had a successful time up until now, but I think anybody will tell you that the next seven or eight opponents that we have are all pretty much top tiers. It will be a good test.”

Those who were healthy before the break held down the fort while Ference and others mended. Watching from the ninth floor at the TD Banknorth Garden for nearly three months, the defenseman had a bird’s-eye view of his team’s success, and even he noticed the recognition the team has built up throughout the NHL.

“Not only in Boston, but you see it more around the league for the Bruins,” said Ference. “There’s a little bit of that edge back. There’s a little bit more respect around the league, and it’s been well earned over the last couple of years.”

Especially now, in places where it’s usually hard to find.

Danny Picard covers the Bruins for OT and can be reached at dpicard@globe.com

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