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Bruins cooking again with Samsonov in mix

The Bruins are rolling right along as they head into tonight's encounter with the Thrashers in Atlanta. They have won four in a row, earned at least a point in nine straight (6-0-1-2), and lost only two games out of 17 in regulation time this season.

The atmosphere is positive at the FleetCenter, but it stops short of unbridled enthusiasm. The reason is that the Bruins were rolling at this time last season, too, then went south for the winter, as in falling all the way to seventh in the Eastern Conference standings. The tumble preceded a first-round playoff loss to eventual Stanley Cup winner New Jersey that left everyone around the Bruins with a bad memory.

Last season, the Bruins lost only four of their first 27 games in regulation, but things began to come apart after they were beaten, 4-2, at home by Montreal Dec. 10. That started a five-game losing streak that signaled the end of the good times.

But there is at least one major difference between last season and this one. Last season, the Bruins went through their freefall without gifted left wing Sergei Samsonov, an offensive standout on a grind-it-out team, who injured his wrist. This season, Samsonov is healthy and playing a strong game, as are his linemates, rookie center Patrice Bergeron and veteran right wing Marty Lapointe.

Prior to last season, Samsonov, 25, had scored no fewer than 19 goals in a season during his six years with the Bruins, and he had tallied 29 in both 2000-01 and 2001-02. But last year, he aggravated a right wrist injury he had suffered as a youth in Russia, and played only seven of the first 31 games before being forced out after a game in Buffalo Dec. 18. He underwent bone graft surgery Dec. 24, and having missed a total of 74 games, he returned for the final regular-season tilt and the playoffs. By then, it was too late.

This season, it's a different story. The Bruins aren't simply winning; they are looking good.

"I think we are playing well as a team," said Samsonov after practice yesterday. "All four lines are contributing. That's taken a lot of pressure off the guys on the top lines. We've put it all together and we're doing it. We're winning games.

"I feel pretty good this year. I'm really looking forward to having a successful season. Last year was really tough. It was really disappointing. Sometimes I didn't feel like I was part of the team. I was not practicing and not playing in the games. It gets to you eventually. So I'm looking forward to this season. We have a good chemistry going. Everyone knows their role, and what they're doing on the ice.

"It's important for this stretch of games coming up that we do well. We have a system to follow. You're going to have a rough stretch at some point, and it's good to have a system to fall back on. It's important to do the right things, and, hopefully, we'll keep winning games."

Samsonov scored five goals, three of them game-winners, in his eight regular-season games last year, an illustration of how important he is to the team. His line has been a going concern this season, with Samsonov at five goals and seven assists for 12 points, the nifty Bergeron at 5-6--11, and Lapointe, who keeps peace and order, at 2-3--5.

"Our line is playing well," said Samsonov, "We're not only scoring, we're playing well on defense. The team has a good combination of lines. Now we need to keep playing well.

"Our line has been a good mix. Patrice has great hockey sense. He's beyond an 18-year-old kid who played in juniors. He's more mature. He knows the game well. He's a smart playmaker. He does all the right things.

"Marty's been great. He goes in the corners really hard. He throws his body around. He's fearless and he does the job. We're doing good as a unit out there."

So, can the Bruins avoid another collapse?

"I don't know how concerned we are, but it is in the back of our minds," said Samsonov. "We have it pretty good right now. It's important not to change. We need to keep it going. We're getting to the point where it went downhill last season. If we keep working our system, we'll be fine. But we have to keep on going. There can be no letdown. Yes, I think we'll be fine." . . .

Samsonov is feeling positive, and so is coach Mike Sullivan. "I like our team right now," said Sullivan. "I think we're strong at every position, but we can get a lot better. We have to maintain our focus. How do you handle success? You have to make sure you don't get complacent. But I don't think we are. As for last year, the guys who were here will heed the lesson. But we're not going to get ahead of ourselves. There are a lot of good teams in this league, and a lot of hockey to be played between now and April. For us, it's important to be a force in April." . . . Casual fans may not even know that the Thrashers are in the league, but they're a game over .500 overall (8-7-3-1) and 4-2-2-0 at home. "They're a good hockey team," said Sullivan. "They're an up-tempo team, and they put pressure on you and try to force you to make mistakes. But, like some other teams in this league, they do it in a responsible manner. They've got some guys up front that can make plays."

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