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Victory found in game itself

The ''L" is what most Bruins fans will remember from last night's season-opening, game-returning, lockout-ending battle with the Canadiens at the Garden. That's just the way things are in the ''W" and ''L" business.

Tom Fitzgerald got grabbed on a questionable hook with 25.7 seconds left in regulation, Michael Ryder popped home the winner exactly 14.6 seconds later, and then the rankled among the ranks threw enough trash on the ice to turn Causeway Street into a mini-tableau of post-New Year's Eve Times Square.

Yeah, new hockey season, same old bitter ending. Comforting in a way.

The Bruins were skewered yet again by the Habs, and the homeys were left to debate whether to kill the ref, pin the tail on Fitzgerald (all the harder, because he's a Billerica guy), or just plain trash the joint. All in all, a night like so many others when these two have played the last 80-plus years.

However, let's look past the outcome for a few moments here, and examine how Game 1 of the NHL's New Deal played out over the course of 2 hours 16 minutes. The ''L" aside, from the local point of view, the new product had some promise.

Best of all, the ice just seemed bigger. OK, that's an optical illusion, because despite all the changes instituted by the NHL, about the only thing that didn't change was rink dimensions. But, boy, you coulda fooled me. For minutes at a time, players on both sides found lanes to skate down, room to stickhandle, and elbow room to do things other than stick an elbow in an opponent's kisser.

''The way it went at the beginning," recalled Fitzgerald, ''I said, 'Hey, they're letting us play hockey.' "

That is the idea, even if it hasn't seemed that way for the better part of 10 years. Two teams are supposed to report to duty, skates tied up, legs warmed up, able and willing to chase the puck all over the ice. That was the idea until the likes of Florida, New Jersey, and, more recently, Minnesota convinced the league at large that hog-tie hockey was the way to go.

Two shining examples of the game's new way of talking came on Goals Nos. 1 and 2, the first scored by Montreal's Jan Bulis, and the second by the Bruins' Patrice Bergeron.

Both goals -- get this -- were scored off the wing. True. Two goals, from fairly long range, on initial shots, without the benefit or a rebound or a top-of-the-crease crosscheck or beheading. Didn't think you'd see that again, did you?

Bulis got a step on rookie defenseman Kevin Dallman, crossed the blue line, and nailed a 30-foot snapshot to the top right corner. Bergeron bolted down the right side after taking a pass near his blue line, charged toward the right faceoff dot at the other end, and beat Habs goalie Jose Theodore with a dazzling sweep shot.

''Both of them off the wing, just what the league's been saying it wants to see," said Bruins goalie Andrew Raycroft. ''Yeah, I thought about that."

The one he thought most about, of course, was the Bulis strike, which handed the Habs the 1-0 lead midway through the first. Dallman, who would have been charged with a penalty if he tugged Bulis from behind, lost his stick as Bulis closed toward the net. A split second later, the puck was in the net.

''Under the old rules, he never gets that shot off," said Raycroft, who turned back 19 shots. ''No way. He gets mauled. The shot never happens."

Far too often, that was precisely what happened in the old, constipated, defense-first-last-and-always NHL. Good scoring chances were routinely turned to rubble before the shot was taken. Goal scoring plummeted. What not long ago was perhaps North America's most entertaining sport became horribly, suffocatingly boring. Everyone still carried sticks, for everything but scoring. They were instruments of hooking, holding, and hatcheting.

Montreal's winning goal was not the same product of the New Ice Age. Raycroft made a dazzling stop of a Saku Koivu slapper from the high slot, then finally allowed Ryder's backhander from the doorstep, after Alexei Kovalev misfired with a similar backhander in the slot. It was more a product of Boston's fumbling on the penalty kill, with the likes of Brian Leetch, Hal Gill, Joe Thornton, and Travis Green failing to get the puck out of the zone.

Leetch, with a game-high 31:23 in ice time, found out his first night on the job the kind of workload Ray Bourque logged routinely for the better part of 20 years. Leetch averaged about 26 minutes of ice time his last three seasons. At age 37, a bump of more than five minutes is significant, and leads to breakdowns such as the one that led to Montreal's winning goal. It also shows what happens when a club is working with two rookies, Andrew Alberts and Dallman, on the blue line.

There will be better nights for the Bruins and their loyal, if peeved, fandom. They'll see a few calls like the one against Fitzgerald go in their favor, and they'll cash in, especially when Alexei Zhamnov (bruised shoulder) gets in the mix.

For now, the best news for everyone is that the game is breathing again. Players can jump to holes, get off shots, score from places other than a six-man taffy pull in front of the net. Who ever would have believed that? If you're a Bruins fan, the beauty may be hard to appreciate this morning, but it's there, even if it can't be found in the scoring summary.

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