BOSTON -- The Bruins are playing their first Friday evening home game since 1977.
Change, as they say, is inevitable, even in a place like Boston, where resistance to change has been legendary, especially within the four walls of its hockey buildings.
It's not quite a sellout at TD Banknorth Garden, but there is a surprising buzz, even though the opposition is the woeful Florida Panthers.
The Bruins start early, as Marc Savard sets up Phil Kessel for a pretty breakaway goal. By midway through the second period, the score is 4-1 Boston. The game is on cruise control as the B's head toward their seventh straight home victory.
Still, we wait for something, a defining moment, that will suggest things are indeed different here in the land of the black and gold.
A couple of minutes after the Bruins score their fourth goal, that moment comes.
The crowd responds as expected, on its feet, in full throat.
After years of wandering in the NHL wilderness, the Boston Bruins appear to have been found, finally hitting on the combination of grit and skill that was the touchstone of the team's glory years more than three decades ago.
Former Boston great and Hall of Famer Cam Neely acknowledges it's been a long journey for his beloved Bruins and for the fans of this Original Six franchise.
"To be honest with you, I felt there was a disconnect for a number of years," Neely, who joined the team as a vice president last season, told ESPN.com.
Players had lost the idea of what it meant to pull on the Bruins' jersey, he said. "I really believe it's back to a point that they understand what it means to put it on."
The fans, put off by years of penny-pinching by ownership followed by foolish expenditures on underachieving players and ill-advised trades, have slowly but surely warmed to this new Bruins outlook.
Average attendance this season puts the Bruins on pace for their third-best attendance year, and fans are connecting to the team in a way they haven't since Neely himself played.
"For a lot of years, they've been disenchanted, and rightfully so," Neely said of Bruins fans. "I think it's very important for the league and for our hockey fans to feel there's something positive happening here."
Positive? You could hardly have scripted a better start for a franchise that hasn't won a Stanley Cup since it was the Big Bad Bruins in 1972 and hasn't been to the conference finals since it was Ray Bourque's Bruins in 1992.
The Eastern Conference's top team was in Montreal this past weekend. It earned a hard-fought 3-2 shootout victory and spoiled the Canadiens' ceremony honoring longtime Boston nemesis Patrick Roy. The Bruins beat Montreal for the second straight time after losing to the Canadiens in 12 straight regular-season games. The win also gave the Bruins an impressive 9-0-1 record in their past 10 games.
The Bruins rank first in the East and second in the NHL behind Minnesota in goals allowed per game (2.14). Surprisingly, the normally offensively challenged Bruins also boast the league's sixth-ranked offense and seventh-ranked power play. Last season? The Bruins ranked 24th and 16th in those respective categories as they sneaked into the playoffs with the No. 8 seed.
"They are a great story," former Tampa Bay Lightning GM Jay Feaster told ESPN.com. "What I think is really great is the fact that this collection of players and coaches has once again made hockey relevant in Boston. And given the level of sports competition in that market, that, in and of itself, is no small accomplishment."
Are they full value for their current status as the top team in the Eastern Conference?
"Yes they are, without a doubt," national NHL analyst Pierre McGuire told ESPN.com.
Here's a look at some of the factors that have conspired to catapult the Bruins back to the top of the standings and into the hearts of Bruins fans:
The Bruins' success through the first quarter of the season marks the team's best start since the 2003-04 season, when it won the Northeast Division with 104 points. But that spring might have been the low point for a team that has been used to low points.
The Bruins blew a 3-1 series lead against the seventh-seeded Montreal Canadiens. Then, star forward Joe Thornton was criticized for his lack of production, timely or otherwise. That he was injured seemed to get lost in the shuffle, but the clock began to tick on Jumbo Joe's departure from Beantown. After the lockout, the Bruins retooled with free agents but never found a groove. On Nov. 30, 2005, Thornton was dealt to San Jose in a blockbuster deal.
The trade did little to change the Bruins' fortunes, as they finished last in the Northeast and out of the playoffs. The deal ultimately cost GM Mike O'Connell his job, and he was replaced by Peter Chiarelli. The former assistant in Ottawa first hired former Detroit coach Dave Lewis, but that experiment failed, and the Bruins again finished last in the division and out of the postseason.
Last season, with Claude Julien behind the bench, the Bruins sneaked into the playoffs. Many players believe the team's identity was forged there. True, the Bruins didn't win their first-round series against Montreal, but after trailing 3-1, they forced a seventh game. Fans rallied around the plucky team, which was without top players Patrice Bergeron and Chuck Kobasew and had Savard playing with a back injury.
Most important, the series marked the first time the Bruins had stepped beyond the shadow of the Thornton trade. "I think a lot of confidence was established from that series," Julien said.
"We showed we could play our game against them," Chiarelli told ESPN.com this week. "It was a good proving ground."
Last, best chance
In some ways, Chiarelli and Julien were men at the end of their career ropes when their fates intertwined during the 2007 offseason.
Hiring Lewis turned out to be a ghastly rookie mistake by Chiarelli, and young GMs don't get too many do-overs, especially with ownership like the Bruins have. Julien, meanwhile, had a terrific reputation as a teaching coach but managed to last just parts of three seasons in Montreal before politics cost him his job there. Then, in 2006-07, Julien guided the New Jersey Devils to a 47-24-8 record until GM Lou Lamoriello unceremoniously replaced him in the final days of the regular season.
Chiarelli, desperate to make the right move with his second hire, first met Julien when Chiarelli was in the agent business working with Larry Kelly in Ottawa. The agents often would send clients to Julien's conditioning camps, and Chiarelli liked his approach to the game.
They talked about ways to improve the Bruins' defensive zone coverage and how to instill a sense of identity into the dressing room. As it turns out, Julien helped imbue the team with his own personality.
"He's a working-class coach," Chiarelli said. "He rolls up his sleeves. He grinds. He grinds through his preparation."
That persona was never more evident than when the Bruins scratched their way into the playoffs this past spring.
"I think it's important. You look at the Detroit Red Wings, their identity is about puck control," Julien said. "Our identity seems to fit well with the city. People here want to see a team that works hard every night. I believe in having that kind of identity."
You'd think a guy whose team is at the top of the conference standings would get a little breathing room, but in recent days, Chiarelli has been criticized on satellite radio for his moves, and there were reports suggesting the Bruins should make a play to bring in free-agent GM Brian Burke. Imagine what they'd be saying if the team stunk? But that's life in Boston.
Still, Chiarelli has done a nice job of adding some pieces to what has turned out to be a pretty darned good homegrown product.
Savard, signed as a free agent shortly after Chiarelli took over, was tied for second in NHL scoring after Tuesday's games and was a plus-13.
Zdeno Chara, another free-agent signing from the summer of 2006, "is back to Norris Trophy form," McGuire said.
Chiarelli committed hockey robbery by landing former Phoenix prospect Blake Wheeler after the 2004 fifth-overall draft pick was allowed to become an unrestricted free agent this past summer. Although some observers said Wheeler needed more seasoning, he has turned out to be a surprisingly productive member of the Bruins' potent third line with 6 goals and 9 points through 21 games.
Chiarelli also rolled the dice on former Hab Michael Ryder, who fell into disfavor in Montreal last season after two 30-goal seasons, signing him to a three-year deal worth $12 million. Ryder hasn't hit his groove yet, but he hasn't been a problem. He has chipped in 11 points in 21 games and has given the Bruins what they have lacked for years, legitimate scoring depth.
We saw a headline the other day that referred rather breathlessly to Savard's being a "team" player, as if it had never occurred to the 31-year-old center that anyone but himself was on the team.
Still, if you were to ask 100 hockey people, the vast majority would say the book on Savard would suggest a gifted but one-dimensional player. And that might have been a fair assessment. For much of Savard's last season in Atlanta (2005-06), he was at or near the top of the list of players whistled for the most minor penalties. Many were lazy stick fouls in the offensive or neutral zone.
Julien recalled how he'd singled out Savard in one game last season for an error Savard had made. The center was livid afterward, but Julien had explained that if he wanted to be a leader on this team, he'd have to accept that he would be held to a different standard. Now, when there's a turnover on the ice, Julien sees a different Savard.
"I see a guy burying his head and backchecking as hard as anyone could do," Julien said. "He takes pride in it."
The player with the great hands regularly kills penalties for a Bruins unit ranked seventh in the NHL.
Savard tells ESPN.com that the idea that team play is new to him stings.
"Yeah, it upsets me because I've always been a good guy," Savard said. "Yeah, it is upsetting. When I came here, I wanted to help build a winner. I knew there was a good opportunity in Boston to build a championship team. That's why I came here."
If he keeps up this level of play, Steve Yzerman and the rest of the Canadian Olympic brain trust will have a hard time not inviting Savard to their orientation camp next fall, at the very least.
Savard knows he's not on the radar to play in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver ("My name's not the biggest," he said), but the idea makes his eyes light up.
In the blink of an eye, Lucic has transmogrified from a sophomore player trying to feel his way around to a force of nature. He hits everything that moves. Sometimes, he hits it more than once. But when he gets the puck on his stick, he has shown an uncanny ability to make good.
Lucic has shown so much promise that Julien has moved him onto a line with Savard and Kessel. Beyond that, Lucic has captured the imagination of a hockey community weaned on players such as Terry O'Reilly, Stan Jonathan, Wayne Cashman and Neely.
"Lucic is a throwback to the old rock-'em, sock-'em Big Bad Bruins and is one of the most popular athletes in Beantown," Feaster said. "Not just popular hockey players, but athletes, which is pretty amazing."
Teammate Aaron Ward joked that one of the reasons he re-signed with the Bruins this past summer was he figured it would extend his career a year or two to play with Lucic rather than be rammed by him while playing for some other team.
Both Chiarelli and Julien have been cautious with Lucic. The 6-foot-3, 228-pound bruiser is just 20 years old.
"He's a well-grounded kid. He knows what got him here. He can't stray from that," Chiarelli said. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves, because he's not Cam Neely."
In other dressing rooms, the regular swarm of media around a sophomore player not named Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin might create some hard feelings. But Lucic is well-liked, and players accept that he represents something that fans have been longing for in this city.
"He's taken the best approach possible. He's humble. He's easy to get along with," Ward said. "He's just such an easygoing, laid-back kid."
The Ward-o factor
Quick, how many Stanley Cup rings does Aaron Ward own? Did you guess three? Good for you.
This past summer, the 35-year-old defenseman was an unrestricted free agent. He thought about going back to Carolina, where he won a Cup in 2006. But, the Lucic factor aside, he liked what he saw and felt in the Bruins' dressing room. That belief has been rewarded through the first quarter of the season.
Ward pointed to a recent game against Buffalo in which the Bruins gave up four first-period goals. Last season, "we would have crumbled," he said. This year, the Bruins stormed back to stun their division foes 7-4.
"It reminds me of being in Carolina in 2006," Ward said. "There's a belief in the locker room that no matter what position we're put in, you're going to be able to recover from it."
Rodney Dangerfield in net
We finish with where the buck stops for the Bruins, with No. 1 netminder Tim Thomas.
"Tim Thomas never ceases to amaze me. What an incredible competitor," Feaster said.
It may be true that the Rodney Dangerfield analogy is a bit tired when it comes to Thomas. After all, the perpetual backup/minor leaguer who willed his way to an NHL job did get a well-earned invite to last season's All-Star Game. Still, a disconnect definitely exists between Thomas' profile and his performance. How else to explain his absence from this season's All-Star ballot in spite of the fact that he leads the league in both save percentage (.944) and goals-against average (1.80)?
Here's the thing, though: It might not be a bad thing that Thomas doesn't get his due, as he uses these slights to further motivate himself. Sources say he's a goalie who needs to keep pushing himself forward to remain successful.
"I still feel I've got something to prove," the 34-year-old Flint, Mich., native said. "As long as you use it as a positive motivating factor."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.