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BRUINS 2, MAPLE LEAFS 1

Bruins cash in on OT

Bergeron's winner money in the bank

Stumblebums for the first five weeks of the season, searching for goals in all the wrong places and their teamwide defensive scheme utterly Rumsfeldian, the Bruins suddenly look capable.

Capable of what? Of how much?

"There's a lot of character in that room," said coach Dave Lewis, following his club's 2-1 edging of the Maple Leafs in overtime last night at the Garden, the third straight win for the revivified Black and Gold. "And we are just dusting the surface on it."

The final dust-off of the Leafs, who humiliated the Bruins at the Vault only a week earlier, was left to Patrice Bergeron only 34 seconds into OT. After winning a draw by pulling the puck back to linemate Brad Boyes in the four-on-four situation, Bergeron was left in front to pot the winner. Boyes, hobbled the night before by back spasms, sent in a long-range wrister that goalie Jean-Sebastien Aubin kicked into the slot, and Bergeron put it away for his third consecutive game-winner.

The triumph, matching Boston's longest winning streak since January of last season, pulled the Bruins back to .500 (7-7-2) for the first time since Game 2 of the season. They are not yet back in the playoff hunt, but they are slowly making their way up from the depths and doldrums of the NHL's Eastern Conference.

A great team? No. Far from it. But thanks to some roster pruning that finally began late last week, instrumental in bringing in speedsters Petr Tenkrat from Providence and Stanislav Chistov (via trade from Anaheim), the Bruins have a far savvier and balanced attack. They also have sharpened their overall defensive awareness, which has led to: 1) a significant increase in blocked shots and 2) a much better view of shots for goalie Tim Thomas.

"I'm guessing we had 10-15 blocks tonight," said captain Zdeno Chara, who hadn't seen a scoresheet that showed Boston's 15-11 advantage in blocks. "Guys are paying the price . . . going in corners, and those little things are going to gather. You have to take some pain to block shots. That's good. It has to hurt to get 2 points."

Not much could be more painful than what the Bruins endured in the season's early going, and much of the blame was focused on the net, where Thomas was slow to get his game going, and Hannu Toivonen (now in Providence) looked shaky from the get-go.

Now Thomas looks confident, reliable -- much like the goalie who showed up here last January and had the Bruins back in playoff contention by the Olympic break. Now that he has a defense willing to block shots, and intelligent enough to give him a good look at what is being fired his way, suddenly the doubting Thomases out there can stop doubting Thomas.

"After our last loss to Toronto," revealed the man in the goalie mask, "we had a team meeting the next day, and the coaches said, 'This is our system, and let's be clear about what we are doing, so from now on, if you aren't playing our system, then it's because you don't want to -- not because you don't know what it is.' "

The air clear, bodies soon began to move, general manager Peter "The Patient" Chiarelli providing the touches. Wade Brookbank and Jeff Hoggan were pushed down to the Wanna B's in Providence. Tenkrat, hardly given a look in training camp, was recalled. Yan Stastny and Matt Lashoff were demoted earlier in the week, just as the Bruins swung the deal to bring in Chistov. Wayne Primeau and Shean Donovan last night found themselves on a fourth line with Mark Mowers. More offensive punch, more balance, better results.

Phil Kessel provided the 1-0 lead at 14:09 of the first, slipping home the go-ahead strike on a power play after point man Paul Mara intentionally shot wide right of the net. The puck ricocheted to the slot, where Marco Sturm missed with a swat, and Kessel delivered from the doorstep.

Lewis said later he had his shooters recently employ the off-net shooting strategy as an option for when the opposition blocks, or negates, the shooting lane. It's not the shortest route to the net, but it has become effective.

The Bruins were 53-plus minutes toward a regulation win when Marc Savard was sent off for hooking at 13:15. Only three seconds later, Kyle Wellwood stripped Primeau (think John Madden vs. Joe Thornton) on a draw to Thomas's right, and McCabe snapped home a 45-foot wrister from the slot, angling his release just over a diving P.J. Axelsson. For the second time in as many nights, the Bruins were headed to OT, setting the stage for Bergeron's heroics redux.

"I subtly noticed things within the last week," said Lewis, musing over the improvements of his team in recovery, "but you don't want to get too excited. Now it's starting to come together."

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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