BOSTON (AP) – While the Boston Bruins hibernated during the NHL’s seasonlong lockout, many New England sports fans hardly even noticed.

They had plenty to keep them occupied. They watched the Red Sox stage an unprecedented playoff comeback on the way to their first World Series title in 86 years. They cheered as the New England Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four seasons. Even the Boston Celtics made a late surge last season to qualify for the NBA playoffs.

Pro hockey, it seems, fell off the sports radar.

With the Red Sox World Series victory, the Bruins are now the Boston sports franchise with the longest championship drought, having not won the Stanley Cup since 1972. They haven’t played in the finals since 1990 and haven’t even made it to the second round of the playoffs since 1999.

It is a situation management wants to rectify as soon as possible. General manager Mike O’Connell has made no secret of the fact that he thinks he has built a team that can challenge for a championship in the new NHL, with a salary cap and rules changes designed to open up the ice and increase scoring opportunities.

“This team, the way it’s set up with the rule changes, I think that we have to be considered one of the favorites for the Stanley Cup,” O’Connell said in August when the team announced the re-signing of center Joe Thornton to a three-year, $20 million contract.

Thornton is the primary reason O’Connell thinks he has a contender. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound former top overall draft pick is just 26 years old and scored more than 20 goals in each of his last five NHL seasons, including two with 30 or more. In 2003-04, he led the team in scoring with 23 goals and 50 assists.

The team’s young core includes forwards Sergei Samsonov and Patrice Bergeron, and goalie Andrew Raycroft, the NHL’s 2004 rookie of the year. Raycroft ended a brief holdout early in training camp, but defenseman Nick Boynton, an all-star in 2003-04, remained unsigned.

Management has surrounded the young stars with veteran free agents – but are they aging stars past their prime, or experienced players who can complement the youngsters? Defenseman Brian Leetch is 38; forward Shawn McEachern is 36; and forward Alex Zhamnov will be 35 on opening night Wednesday against the Montreal Canadiens.

“I think we look pretty strong, and I know a lot of people are saying we have a team that can compete for the Stanley Cup,” Zhamnov said. “It’s not going to be easy.”

The Bruins look particularly strong up front, where Thornton is likely to center a line with Samsonov and Glen Murray.

Samsonov, a former rookie of the year, is a proven scorer – when healthy. He scored 19 or more goals in each of his first five seasons but has played just 66 games over the past two NHL seasons due to wrist, knee and rib injuries. He has played just one exhibition game this year with a strained back. Murray had 30 or more goals in each of the last three seasons, including 44 in 2002-03 when he finished with a team-high 92 points.

The new rules figure to benefit the Bruins.

“We have a lot of big, strong guys who used to make plays when people were hooking, and now, look at Joe (Thornton). He gets the puck in the neutral zone and no one can stop him,” Samsonov said. “We have a lot of offensive guys on our team who thrive on that, and hopefully it’s going to play right into our hands.”

The question marks are on defense, where the depth is provided by inexperienced players who will have to “step up,” O’Connell has said.

Hannu Toivonen, a former first-round draft pick and the backup goalie, is 21 and has never played in an NHL game.

The Bruins have been aggressive in trying to win back fans, lowering some ticket prices and promoting the new season heavily with radio ads.

But management and players know that the bottom line is wins and losses. Put a contender on the ice, and the fans will fill the TD Banknorth Garden, and maybe even forget about the Red Sox and Patriots for a couple of hours.

“In hockey towns, like Boston is, the true fans are always going to come out,” Murray said. “No question about it.”


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