To hear some people tell it, the Boston Bruins were the greatest thing since sliced bread through the early part of the 2002-03 season -- or at least through the first week of December when they ran up a league-best record of 19-4-3-1 in the first 26 games.
But, as we all well know, the club then took a nosedive. Coach Robbie Ftorek was fired with nine games remaining in the regular season, general manager Mike O'Connell took over behind the bench, and the mediocrity went on and on and on.
The Bruins were punched out in the first round of the playoffs in five painful games by the eventual Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils. During the offseason, the Bruins talked about how their collapse was an aberration, how they had so much talent and promise that it really wasn't a true reflection of where the team was going.
Well, some 2½ months into the 2003-04 season, the jury is still very much out on whether the Bruins are destined to repeat last season's path. Early on it appeared that way, at least with the positive start and all. Through 19 games, the club was flying at 11-2-3-3.
Then came the crash.
The Bruins are 13-6-8-4 after Tuesday night's 1-1 tie with the Montreal Canadiens. Although their record looks good on paper, they are on a run -- or stagger -- of 2-4-5-1 in their past 12 games. O'Connell, who has been getting very antsy, expressed his displeasure publicly, saying his team was showing an alarming lack of effort and passion and threatened changes if it didn't turn around quickly. The Bruins responded with a 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night.
Are there still cracks in the armor? Yes. However, the Bruins truly are a better team than they've shown recently -- although there is no excuse for being the league's second-worst penalty-killing team (77.1 percent) -- and here's why:
Some Bruins veterans have admitted that they were holding their collective breath every time there was a shot on net last year. Truth be told, no one had faith in either John Grahame or Steve Shields. The Bruins skimped on netminders in 2002-03, and it came back to bite them in the behind. This year, they're riding a home-grown product in Andrew Raycroft. Coach Mike Sullivan said he has equal faith in both Raycroft and Felix Potvin, but make no mistake, it's Raycroft's job to lose and chances are good that he won't. The unflappable young netminder has poise and maturity well beyond his 23 years, and most importantly, he stops the puck, which means the Bruins are well ahead of last year already.
If you're looking for similarities between Ftorek and Sullivan, here they are: They're both from Massachusetts and they both love the game. Beyond that, there isn't much else you can put your finger on. If Sullivan is an open book -- frank, straight-shooting, low-maintenance and easy to deal with -- Ftorek was in many ways the polar opposite. He was eccentric, confounding and, at times, disingenuous. It's no big deal when the media doesn't connect with the coach, but when the players don't either, well, that's a problem.
Joe Thornton is better and more consistent. Glen Murray has one of the quickest shots in the league, and Mike Knuble might be the most underrated winger in the game. Together they make up one of the most formidable trios in the NHL. Sergei Samsonov is looking to play far more of this year than he did last when he underwent wrist surgery (he's sidelined briefly now as a result of a slight knee sprain), but it's still not clear what line he best belongs on. Rookie Patrice Bergeron, 18, is the youngest player in the NHL, but he's been nothing short of astounding. Most young players hit a wall at some point in the year. Not so with Bergeron. His passing skills are top notch, and he adjusts no matter what line he's put on. Bergeron arrived in Boston via a compensatory draft pick the Bruins received for losing Bill Guerin to free agency (and you thought the Bruins weren't getting anything in return by letting Guerin go). The kid has no limits or so it appears.
Thornton, who has a year of captaincy under his belt, is still more comfortable leading by example, but he has begun to take charge gradually as his career has gone along. Fortunately for him, too, he has a lot of help. Martin Lapointe and Sean O'Donnell both have strong presences both on and off the ice. When the team hasn't been very good, O'Donnell and Lapointe have helped keep their teammates on an even keel.
Could the Bruins end up as merely a first-round road block for another team seeking Cup glory? Sure. But this team isn't the same as last year. Not even a little bit. Now all that's left is to prove it.
Nancy Marrapese-Burrell of the Boston Globe is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.