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Defense mechanism is solid

Now one-fifth of the way through the 2003-04 season, the Bruins look like they could make life miserable for any number of clubs when the playoffs roll around in April. Even the Devils, the game's trappist wonks, might find it hard to contain the Bruins if the Black-and-Gold can play the kind of up-tempo game they turned in Saturday in a 2-1 overtime victory over the formidable Canucks.

"I'd say it was our best effort of the year," said coach Mike Sullivan, his club 6-0-1-2 over the last three weeks, Boston's best run since an 8-0-1 romp in November 1989. "It was an exciting game to be a part of."

It was about this same time last year, his club similarly on top of the NHL's overall standings, when Robbie Ftorek was saying the same kind of things. The sky looked like the limit, until early-December storm clouds moved in and the Bruins all but disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle. Ftorek, fired only days after a late-March vote of confidence from general manager Mike O'Connell, never saw the playoffs. The lackluster charges he left behind were dismissed handily by the Devils in the postseason opening round.

Against that background, it's understandably difficult for even the most ardent Black-and-Gold tub thumpers to get too caught up in what has happened the first six weeks of the new season. Maybe Saturday night's sellout was an indication that there are still a few believers out there. If there is reason to trust that this year is different than last year, it can be found in net, where Andrew Raycroft and Felix Potvin continue to dazzle, as well as in the surehanded lot of six blue liners who make up the defensive corps.

Sullivan believes Potvin and Raycroft have been his best performers this year. He's correct.

The rookie coach also believes his defensive charges have been somewhat overlooked, especially with so much media focus on a far more sensational pack of forwards. He's right about that, too. Mssrs. Dan McGillis, Ian Moran, Sean O'Donnell, Jeff Jillson, Hal Gill, and Nick Boynton aren't likely to chalk up many All-Star votes, but as of yesterday, they stood as the brick and mortar to the NHL's most successful team here in the early going.

"We are trying to encourage our players to make plays," said Sullivan after Saturday's victory. "We think we have gifted [offensive] players, and when we take our chances, we're trying to do it in a responsible manner."

A big part of being responsible is having the defensemen engaged in the attack, and not necessarily in a jump-up-into-the-play sense. So much went wrong last season when the defense, as a unit, looked woefully out of synch with what the forwards were trying to accomplish. If the forwards were wearing tuxedos, the defensemen looked like they were sporting cutoff jeans.

Night after night there was a noticeable disconnect between the units, the spacing between the forwards and defensemen often was enough to allow an 18-wheeler safe passage through the neutral zone. Sullivan and his bench assistant, ex-NHL blue liner Norm Maciver, have cobbled together a much more cohesive attack and the eye-popping result reads: 34 goals against in 17 games.

If they were to keep up this pace, the Bruins would finish with only 164 goals scored against them this year. Not only would that be an astounding decrease of 73 from last year's 237, it would be the fewest goals they've ever allowed in an 82-game season. They allowed only 181 in 1998-99, which stands as their record for an 82-game season. In seasons of 70 games or more (dating back to 1949-50), their best season was 1952-53 when they allowed 172 goals in 70 games.

Consistency in personnel counts, too. Over the course of the 82 games last year, the Bruins used no fewer than 13 different defensemen and, oh, maybe 387 different pairings. Thus far, Sullivan has gone with the same steady six pack of blue liners, and the pairings have remained consistent. The defensemen have combined for five goals and 24 points, and are plus-21.

The only place the blue liners have dipped slightly is in the offensive game, perhaps understandable with Bryan Berard, their slickest puckhandler, now in Chicago. Berard led the way back there with 38 points last year, slightly more than 28 percent of the 135 points scored by the entire backline. Minus Berard, this year's bunch is on target for 116 points, what would be about a 14 percent drop in overall offensive production back there.

. . .

After yesterday's day off, the Bruins will be back on the ice today for the first of two tuneups prior to facing the Thrashers Wednesday night in Atlanta . . . The Capitals visit FleetStreet Thursday night . . . No word in the wire report how he broke it, but Columbus captain Luke Richardson fractured a finger Friday night in the Blue Jackets' game against Boston. Richardson traded punches with Joe Thornton after the Boston captain responded to Richardson's heavy hit on Glen Murray . . . Ex-Bruin Phil Esposito, pushing his new book, "Thunder and Lightning: A No B.S. Hockey Memoir," between periods on NESN Saturday night, detailed his three fondest hockey memories in an interview with Tom Caron and Paul Stewart. He named the 1970 Stanley Cup first, followed by the night his No. 7 Bruins sweater was retired at the Garden, Ray Bourque making the surprise switch to No. 77. Last on the list was the day in 1991 when then league president John Ziegler awarded the Tampa Bay franchise to Esposito and his investors, a collection of Japanese businessmen. Affecting a Japanese-American accent, Esposito recalled one of his partners turned to him at the news conference and asked, "What we do now?" A stunned Esposito turned to him and said, in a Canadian-American-Japanese accent, "Now, you pay!"

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