Black Aces Relishing Their Ride with the Big Club
Jay Leach and Co. getting an up close look at the Bruins march to the Finalsby Michael Tolvo @NHLBruins / BostonBruins.com
BOSTON - A young and resilient Providence Bruins squad fell to the Charlotte Checkers in the first round of the AHL playoffs. For some, the season was coming to an end. For a few others, the offseason would have to wait. With the Boston Bruins surging through the Eastern Conference side of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, some P-Bruins stuck around to comprise this year's "Black Aces".''
The term "Black Aces", originally coined in 1940 by legendary Bruins defenseman Eddie Shore, describes the extra skaters waiting in the wings to be called into action in case of injuries.
The Bruins have a host of 12 of these "Black Aces" who have been skating regularly since the end of their AHL season on Apr. 26. Down in Providence, Peter Cehlarik, Zach Senyshyn, Jack Studnicka, Trent Frederic, Anton Blidh, Jordan Szwarz, Paul Carey, Urho Vaakanainen, Jeremy Lauzon, Jakub Zboril and Kyle Keyser. In Boston, Zane McIntyre has been with the team as the third goaltender.
Day To Day
Since their season finished on Apr. 26, the Black Aces have shifted from their usual home at the Dunkin' Donuts Center to skate at Providence College.
"We'll usually come and stretch, maybe a pre-workout," said prospect Trent Frederic. "Drive up to the rink and practice there. They've been pretty fun practices. We've always played games kind of at the end, so keep us kind of sharp."
The coaching staff has to balance keeping them ready in case they're needed in a playoff game, while also focusing on their offseason development.
"It's a pretty regimented affair," said P-Bruins head coach Jay Leach. "The way we started it was we were skating just like we were during the regular season to kind of keep them up to speed. We've started to transition a little bit into a little bit more of a skill-based format. Just because as the playoffs go longer, it does kind of cut into some guys' summers. We've got players in the Black Ace squad that are young and they're going to need to develop. We've had to transition it a bit.
"Obviously keep up with the pace of what would be a normal skate, because they're going to need that just in case they are called upon. At the same time, we are aware that these players are in the formative years of their careers, so we want to make sure that they're getting both sides of that equation so they're ready for the fall."
On the ice, the players are focusing on specific skills that they can build into their games for next season.
"We do a lot of skill work," said Leach. "Everyone talks about skill work. In tight spaces, a lot of stuff with our edges. We do a lot of stuff with our hands. We do a lot of stuff with finishing, scoring. All things that you can work on throughout the season but really you can focus a lot more in the summer time."
While keeping the Black Aces in shape to play a postseason contest is a challenge, ensuring they stay sharp mentally could be an even greater task.
"It's certainly a challenge for them," said Leach. "It's a challenge for us as coaches. We don't want to bag skate them but we also want to keep them ready. We have to try to establish a plan in place so that they're ready and at the same time they're focused on next year."
Providence Bruins captain Jordan Szwarz knows that injuries could be the only thing that force him or his fellow Black Aces into action.
"That's probably the toughest thing is staying mentally sharp and prepared," said Szwarz. "Injuries have to happen, but it's playoff hockey. Playoff hockey is really intense as we all know, and injuries do happen as we all know, and you have to keep your mind sharp and keep yourself in shape in case that opportunity comes, and you can make the best of it."
The young group has attended each home game, while watching the road games together to try to stay engaged throughout the playoff run.
"We watch all the games," said Frederic. "Watching the games keeps you in check. We've got to go the home games, you watch them up top there you learn a good amount. It's pretty cool."
The coaches and players have a group text where they stay in contact throughout the games.
"The text banter is certainly strong when the games are going which has been fun," said Leach. "At the same time, we'll meet up and we'll check it out. We'll break down - Hunter [Cherni] our video [coach] will download the game in the morning. We'll break some of it down and do some of that stuff too. Try to stay into it as much as we possibly can."
Frederic spent 15 games with the Bruins during the season, learning the intensity of the NHL regular season. Now in the playoffs, the 21-year-old center is watching as that intensity goes up a few notches.
"You can see guys are zoned in," said Frederic. "Not that they aren't during the regular season. Obviously, they have the beards so they look like they're really in playoff mode. It looks like they're all focused and ready to win this thing."
Szwarz has experience as a Black Ace going back to his time with the Coyotes organization.
"I actually did this back in  back when Phoenix went to the Western Conference Finals and they lost to LA," said Szwarz. "That was my first experience being a Black Ace. I stayed the whole way there. I've been through this before so some of the young guys have been asking me what it's like and I've had that experience to share with them."
Having been through it, some of the younger players have asked Szwarz about what to expect.
"Just to take it all in," said Szwarz. "It's amazing what these guys are doing up here. We've had the privilege to come and watch some games and see these guys competing and how fortunate they are to be in this position. Just take it all in and just really see how much of a grind it is that these guys are going through."
Szwarz had the chance to play 12 games with the Bruins in 2017-18, and he still carries lessons from that time.
"Just all around, the biggest thing I have taken in is how each guy conducts himself on and off the ice," said Szwarz. "I was fortunate enough to play some games here last year. I got called up and I remember after I finished my first practice I couldn't believe how hard these guys went in practice. It's something really nice to see and it's good for these young guys to get to see this first hand."
"I've seen how Bergy [Patrice Bergeron] and and Zee [Zdeno Chara], [David] Backes, those older veteran guys carry themselves and that is exactly the kind of person that I want to be for those young guys down in Providence. Really be a good mentor to them as well."
Leach is excited about all that his young contingent can take from the experience.
"I think first and foremost, hopefully they can get a sneak peak at how the guys prepare on a daily basis," said Leach. "I think they're familiar with it. But at the same time to see where they're at in late May, June and they're still doing the same stuff they were doing probably in September. It's obviously something they should look at. I think they also, they'll see how important each and every detail is. How every game is filled with these little tidbits of, 'Geez I have to be focused because if I make a mistake here, it could cost me and us the season and an opportunity to win the Cup'."
For the young guys, they hope to one day be playing in the Stanley Cup Final themselves.
"Obviously I want to soak it in," said Frederic. "Hopefully one day I get to be playing like these guys in the Stanley Cup and just to have guys around you and kind of learn through how they're going to do it and hopefully I get a chance to maybe down the line to do the same the same."
On For The Ride
While the chances are low that a Black Aces will get game action in the Stanley Cup Final, having a front row seat is a great consolation.
"It is really cool," said Szwarz. "Seeing some of the guys today and talking with them a bit, talking about what it's been like so far and this layoff that they have. It's been a pleasure to watch so far. These guys have been through a lot, doing a heck of a job in the playoffs so far and I wish them all the best going forward."
Over the last week, the Black Aces have skated each day at Warrior Ice Arena and some of them have integrated into the full team practices.
"We're obviously thrilled to be here," said Leach. "I think we're thrilled for the organization as well. We're thrilled to be here. It's the Stanley Cup Finals. Who wouldn't be? I think the boys are pumped that they're here now. They're able to see it and to feel it. I think they'll do anything to stay ready for that opportunity."
In 2011, Bruce Cassidy was the head coach in Providence and managed the Black Aces throughout the Bruins run to the Cup. Eight years later, Leach finds himself in the same spot.
"I obviously would love to be a fly on the wall everywhere I go, and everything I see, No. 1," said Leach. "Butchy and the staff are so nice to us as a staff in Providence and we're very fortunate to be able to talk and interact with them really a lot more than most other teams - really just the proximity but also because they're the people that they are. And then for me personally, yeah you never know.
"I soak these things up. They don't come around too often. To be around a championship run is something that you're never going to replicate, and you can certainly take a lot from."
Cliffy Hits Home
Connor Clifton's second season as professional did not go as planned - for all the right reasons. As the 12th defenseman on the depth chart in September, Clifton and his coaches hoped for a strong year of development as he aimed to become an NHL defenseman.
As June approaches, Clifton will likely be a fixture in the Bruins lineup as they prepare to play in the Stanley Cup Final. Many of the Black Aces played with Clifton for the majority of the season.
"Connor Clifton has obviously had a terrific year this year," said Leach. "He's been able to play with us for the last year and a half and come up here and contribute and do a really nice job. That really hits home for a lot of our players that played with Cliffy for the last year and a half. Now we know what Connor Clifton did for that year and a half. We also know what Connor Clifton did in the summer time. So we're able to see that [progression] and the transformation into the NHL player that we see now.
"For our guys watching Cliffy now and he's out there and he was literally just with us, that hits home. That should inspire a lot of our guys to have good summers. To start to do the things that Cliffy clearly started to do to make him into an NHL player. That is the piece for us that we as coaches like to throw at them quite a bit."
Clifton was forced into action due to a rash of injuries. After a nine-game stint he was sent back to Providence. Weeks later, the New Jersey native was back - this time for good.
"There's a coming out party, I think, every playoff and every year," said general manager Don Sweeney. "You have players that will surprise and rise to the occasion. And Connor, look, he's a game kid. Right from Day 1, the way Bruce described it, he didn't know if he was going to be a forward or a defenseman when he was playing…Connor plays to his strengths and then he's put structure in his game. He's bought into what we've asked him to do and he's had some success as a result. Those are good stories, really good stories, and important ones for the success of any organization."
As his coach for large portions of two seasons, Leach enjoys seeing the player have success.
"We tried our best and we try our best to give them every possible opportunity to do it," said Leach. "But it does end up being - it's on their plate. By no means does that mean it doesn't make it less enjoyable. It's certainly a lot of fun to watch Cliffy and Kuhly and all these guys out there playing on that ice. It's why we do what we do. It's terrific. A kid who obviously had a dream and he's able to grab that thing and run with it and if we were a small part of it and helping him along the way, hey it's great. It's terrific."