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WARMING THE BENCH: Like The Pats, The B’s Do It As A Team

With Olympic play a distant memory, the NHL playoff races have heated up, and the Boston Bruins are right in the thick of the action as they face off against the Rangers in New York tonight. The Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers are within their sights, and displacing them at the top is not out of the question for the scrappy Bruins.

The Bruins have slipped under the radar of the Boston sports scene this season, thanks in large part to the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory and the dismantling of the Red Sox regime. The Bruins, who enter tonight’s contest with 80 points, have quietly been putting together a really good season of exciting hockey. This year’s team has rekindled the spirit of the Big Bad Bruins, and the action on Causeway Street is the most exciting that it’s been in years.

The 2001-02 season got off to an auspicious start as the Bruins traded disgruntled holdout, Captain Jason Allison, to the Kings for a pair of former B’s in Joseph Stumpel and Glen Murray. Some questioned the deal, but Murray has put together a career year with 29 goals in 66 games, and Stumpel has been a solid offensive contributor, setting up his teammates with precise passes.

Since the trade, the Bruins have played without a captain, but there is no shortage of leaders on this team. One unlikely spark plug who emerged this season is diminutive enforcer P.J. Stock. Although he has registered only one point, Stock has inspired his teammates with his willingness to enter a bare-fist brawl with any player on the ice, despite the fact that many of his opponents tower over him.

Stock caters to his adoring public on the bench and in the stands with a little wave after every fight, no matter what kind of pounding he takes. Stock was recently knocked out of action quite literally with a broken bone in his face. P.J. was not down for long, though. Ignoring common sense, he engaged Gino Odjick in a skirmish his first game back.

Stock’s reckless abandon has not been lost on his teammates. Goaltender Bryon Dafoe stole a page out of Stock’s repertoire and waved to fans after embarrassing Ottawa’s Patrick Lalime in a goalie fight.

While his career as an enforcer will most likely be short-lived, Dafoe continues to flourish in net for the B’s. Yesterday, Dafoe was selected as a nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial trophy by the Boston chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. The award is given to a player who exemplifies sportsmanship, perseverance and a dedication to hockey. Dafoe certainly exemplifies many of these qualities, as do many of his teammates.

After missing the past 31 games due to wrist surgery, Kyle McLaren will finally be ready to return to the Bruins lineup tonight. McLaren was only 18 years old when he first came to the Bruins touted as the next Ray Bourque. He has dealt with not only high expectations but also numerous injuries throughout his seven-year career. Rather than get discouraged and give up, however, McLaren has worked hard at his rehab every time to get back with his teammates as quickly as possible.

On Monday, Bruins coach Robbie Ftorek decided to give his team the day off. He called all the players to let them know, but seven showed up anyway. Veteran defensemen Don Sweeney, who has played more games for the Bruins than any other current player, showed up on his day off to get in some extra work. Sweeney isn’t battling anyone for a spot on the roster. He came to the practice to improve himself so that he could be more beneficial to his teammates.

Joe Thornton has been pressing Ftorek to let him rejoin the lineup after he suffered a shoulder injury. Thornton wants desperately to get back on the ice, but Ftorek has made it clear the Bruins won’t risk injuring their star by rushing him back too soon. Mike Knuble broke a bone in his back earlier this season and missed only 19 days. These Bruins are warriors who want to play. The Bruins benefit not only from the players’ passion, but also from the depth that allows them to continue a high level of play even without their stars.

The Bruins stayed behind in the St. Louis locker room watching the Patriots win Super Bowl XXXVI. The message of victory through teamwork is one the Bruins have also subscribed to this season. As of last night, they were the only team in the NHL to have 5 players with at least 20 goals. The Bruins haven’t relied on one person to carry the team; they have worked together for their victories, and that formula already proved beneficial for one New England team this year.

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