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It's another wingding for Thornton, Bruins

New year, new attitude.

Dazed and dead on double runners, all but read a referee's standing-8 count as 2003 ended, the Bruins chiseled away yesterday to their third straight win, a 2-1 overtime edging of the Detroit Red Wings before a sellout crowd of 17,565 on Causeway Street. Whatever it was that ailed 'em, they appear to have beaten the bug over the first two weeks of the new year.

"Yeah, it's nice," said captain Joe Thornton, who scored the winner 2:30 into sudden death, smacking a Dan McGillis drop pass past Curtis Joseph into a wide-open net. "We're what, 4-0 in the new year? Can't complain about that. And we're playing smart hockey, which is what we've wanted to do all year."

Three weeks removed from hearing owner Jeremy Jacobs all but holler for their heads on Black & Gold platters, the Bruins now have lost only one of their last seven games, an impressive 5-1-1 stretch that has halted their frightening free-fall in the Eastern Conference standings.

Perhaps they're not blowing anyone away -- never with more than three goals a game over the last month -- but they steadily have regained their skating legs, they're making smarter decisions with the puck, and they're knocking opponents back with a blend of steady defense and top-notch netminding. Andrew Raycroft, who picked up a 3-0 win in Detroit last Wednesday, has been in net for the three consecutive wins, allowing only two goals in a combined 182:30.

"It's a credit to the guys, the way they've been playing," said the diplomatic rookie, who no doubt will be back in the cage tomorrow night when the resurgent Sabres come to town. "We didn't give them many strong chances."

Neither were the Wings yielding much in the way of golden opportunities at the other end, especially with Joseph, the goalie who couldn't be traded, snuffing out all but two of 35 shots. He had no chance of turning back Martin Lapointe's power-play equalizer early in the third period, after a Mike Knuble backhander rebounded hot into the slot. In OT, CuJo committed to a knee when McGillis carried deep down the right wing on four-on-four, and McGillis's backhand feed into the slot for Thornton left Jumbo Joe with a Shaqlike slam-dunk for the victory.

"He's such a great positional goalie," said Thornton, who, had circumstances been different over the summer, might have had Joseph guarding the Bruins net. "He's always square to the shooter. When I got the pass and looked up, and I saw all that open space, I didn't believe it."

Only a couple of weeks ago, no one could believe the hurtin' here in the Hub of Hockey. After plummeting last season following a blistering two-month start, the Bruins again were in the throes of a mind-boggling tailspin, failing to win 16 of 19 times. But they've now allowed only 11 goals over the last seven games. They're also working with revamped lines and an icy stare from coach Mike Sullivan, who may have overestimated their ability to motivate from within and show up game-ready. A sterner approach from Sullivan, who began last week with a double-dose practice session, appears to have caught their attention.

The rare time the Bruins backed off against the Wings, Jeff Jillson errantly tossing a puck out of the corner, Detroit converted for the 1-0 lead only 8:00 into the first. Aging icon Steve Yzerman picked off the Jillson faux pass and stepped into a 40-foot shot that clanged around in the middle before Kirk Maltby potted it. The Wings would put 22 more shots on net, for a total of 28, and Raycroft handled them all.

Raycroft's best in show came with 1:15 gone in OT when Detroit defenseman Jason Woolley raced down right wing (playing the part of McGillis) to lead a two-on-one break against Jillson. Jillson alertly maintained position, preventing a passing lane to Woolley's left, and Raycroft made an alert stop on Woolley from about 10 feet.

"Great job by Jilly," said Raycroft. "He took that pass away completely."

The grittiest play of the day, though, was the hard-rock Lapointe, the ex-Red Wing, jamming the slot early in the third as fellow ex-Wing Knuble unleashed a backhander from the left circle. The ricochet off CuJo came straight to Lapointe for the forehand pot, and then came a high stick from Brendan Shanahan that left Lapointe with a bloody, flapping left ear. With Pavel Datsyuk already gone for a five-minute boarding major, setting up Lapointe's goal, the Wings were not assessed another penalty for the Shanahan high stick.

Why not?

"I don't know," said a smiling, smarting Lapointe, who has played his best hockey here in two-plus seasons the last two months. "The goal maybe, no?"

That's one explanation, and a good one, after weeks of inexplicable frustration.

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