WILMINGTON -- There is a strong possibility that Joe Thornton will suit up tonight when the Bruins host the Buffalo Sabres at the TD Banknorth Garden.
Thornton has missed the last three games because of a strained back, suffered Oct. 10 against the Lightning in Tampa. He skated for a half-hour with strength coach John Whitesides Tuesday then went through the full team workout yesterday, which had a higher-than-normal intensity level because coach Mike Sullivan was still peeved at his club's lack of work ethic in Tuesday night's loss to the Canadiens in Montreal.
''I feel a lot better," said Thornton. ''What a week can do for you. It feels like day and night right now. I've really relaxed for the past six days, I haven't been doing too much. I've been getting massages and doing a lot of stretching and ultrasound. We've been hitting it hard for the last week and it's really coming around."
The test, Thornton said, will be how he feels when he wakes up this morning.
''[Yesterday] is really the first day I skated, so I'll wake up and see how it is [today] and how it is after the morning skate, but right now it feels pretty good, so hopefully I'll be able to go [tonight]," he said.
Thornton left the team Oct. 12 to return home and be examined, and said after a couple of days he started to notice improvement. He said the treatment he received has made all the difference.
''It's really been a huge change for me," he said. ''It's loosened up and there's no stiffness at all down there."
A couple of years ago, Thornton was so worn out because of constant obstruction fouls that he threatened retirement, saying his back was killing him. He said that had more to do with being fed up than anything.
''Last year, it felt great for me," said Thornton, who felt healthy while playing in Switzerland during the lockout. ''I think I've just had doubts in the past, a week here or there if it was bad. I think it was just a frustrating time with all the hooking in the league. This year, it's obviously a big change. My back was hurting back then but it's better now and that's all that matters."
Thornton said that although he fell awkwardly into the boards during the game against Tampa Bay, which might have triggered the spasms, his back was bothering him throughout training camp and he thought he could play through it. Now, he said it's a matter of doing the proper exercises so he won't have to deal with it for the rest of the season and perhaps for the rest of his career.
''Working with the trainers here, they said if I just keep on the program it should be good for the rest of the year," he said. ''I got to work with [therapist] Scotty Waugh and he has a little program for me every day, and just work hard and it should be OK."
The Bruins are 1-2 without Thornton and he said it wasn't easy to watch them struggle, particularly Tuesday night during a 4-3 loss to the Canadiens.
''We'll get back on the winning trail soon," he said. ''You want to be out there playing and helping the guys out. Seeing a tough loss like that, you want to be out there helping. Hopefully, [tonight] I can."
Sullivan said he delivered the message both on and off the ice to his players that there's no greater insult in sports than a lack of work ethic.
''For me, [Tuesday] night was a tough pill to swallow because we didn't control the things that are within our control," said the coach. ''The first game, we played them in our building and I thought we had a solid effort and we probably deserved a different fate. [Tuesday] was a different story.
''From my perspective, it wasn't what we were looking for; our expectation of our team is a lot higher than what we saw, and that's what we told our guys."
As for the other wounded Bruins, forward Shawn McEachern missed practice yesterday and was headed to the doctor because of back spasms. McEachern, who has had back issues in the past, appears doubtful for tonight. Defenseman Jiri Slegr (sore back) is expected to resume skating Saturday . . . Center Alexei Zhamnov (strained shoulder) is scheduled to begin skating this week . . . Goalie Andrew Raycroft isn't thrilled about his 2-4 record but said he's not yet concerned about his numbers -- .904 save percentage and 3.25 goals-against average. ''To be honest, I'm not too upset about it," he said. ''You look around the whole league and I'm still hanging in there. I'm not going to throw any names out there but if I have a 5.00 GAA and everybody else in the league has a 5.00 GAA, then it doesn't matter. The most important column is wins and I have to find a way to get a couple more of those. That's the biggest concern." . . .. Team Canada named 81 players to its preliminary roster for February's Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Among them were five Bruins -- Raycroft, defenseman Nick Boynton, and forwards Thornton, Glen Murray, and Patrice Bergeron. The squad has to be cut down to 23 on or before Dec. 22.