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Notebook: P-Bruins Feeling Confident Heading into Game 5

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins — The Providence Bruins, just like their NHL affiliate, preach defense first. It should be no surprise, then, that the first four games of their first-round Calder Cup Playoff series against Hartford have all been low-scoring affairs.

Only one of those four games has featured more than three goals total. Three of the four games have been 2-1 contests. The goaltending for each side has been excellent, and despite the fact that the P-Bruins have tested Wolf Pack netminder Yann Danis with plenty of shots on net, they have had trouble getting them through.

That, said P-Bruins Head Coach Bruce Cassidy, is something that needs to be rectified during a pivotal Game 5 in Hartford on Friday night.

“We’ve got to shoot with our head up a little more,” Cassidy said following Providence’s practice at the Rhode Island Sports Center on Thursday morning. “They’re doing a good job of blocking shots, clogging lanes, so [we have to be] a little more active on the blueline.”

Cassidy said his club has the personnel to get shots through. He mentioned Joe Morrow, Zach Trotman and David Warsofsky, all of whom are agile defensemen who are capable of generating offense.

“We’re going to need them to create their own shooting lanes with their feet, and then it’s a matter of having the net presence,” Cassidy said. “I think part of our problem is when we’ve gotten shots through, our net presence wasn’t there, and then when the net presence is there, the puck doesn’t get there. When it has, we’ve scored.”

One prime example of that came in Game 2 of this series, when Providence forward Alexander Khokhlachev notched the game-winning goal just over four minutes into the third period. In that game, Providence got its opportunities — 30 of them — and the net-front presence paid off, too.

“That’s what we need — a combination of both,” Cassidy said. “Our guys understand that they’ve got to move a little more and play with their head up, and we worked on that a bit [Thursday], but again, it’s a bit of a natural instinct, and it has to come through [Friday].”

During a series in which offense has been hard to come by, Khokhlachev has been a bright spot for the P-Bruins. In addition to tallying the game-winner in Game 2, he scored Providence’s first goal in an eventual 2-1 triple-overtime victory in Game 3.

Being an offensive spark is a role he has come to expect of himself.

“It feels good,” Khokhlachev said. “It’s playoffs, and I think everybody tries hard, and the big goal [in Game 2] is good for me, but my linemates helped me out and the whole team played good.

“We know we have a big game [Friday], so we look forward to that.”

Forward Seth Griffith is the other player who has come up big for Providence on the scoresheet throughout this series. Griffith ended the longest playoff game in P-Bruins history on April 26, when he scored two minutes into the third overtime period of Game 3 to give Providence a 2-1 series lead.

Griffith also scored in the waning minutes of Game 4 to help Providence pull within a goal.

Given the fact that Griffith encountered a 10-game goalless drought to close out the regular season, the timely offense has been a big confidence booster for him.

“It’s been a little bit of a struggle for me as of late, just getting pucks to the net, so obviously I’m glad those are going in,” he said. “But more importantly, we had a big win a couple of days ago. Obviously not the [result] we were expecting our last game, but we’ve got another chance to end it, and hopefully we can do it.”

The 2014-15 season has been an up-and-down one for Griffith, who spent a large chunk of the first half of the season with the big club. In 30 games with Boston, during which he mostly played on the top line alongside David Krejci and Milan Lucic, Griffith registered six goals and four assists.

But once he was assigned to Providence on January 11, he was there to stay, and he said that was a tough adjustment to make after spending so much time in the NHL.

“It’s a little tough,” he said. “It’s a little disappointing, obviously, coming back — you want to be with the big club, but it was a learning experience for me, and we got a lot of guys back from Boston now, so we have a team that can go far in the playoffs hopefully, and we’ve got a chance to extend it [Friday].”

Though they are just 21 and 22 years old, respectively, the P-Bruins will look to players like Khokhlachev and Griffith as leaders in Friday’s elimination game. They were there last year, after all, when Providence faced elimination in the first round against Springfield, and they were among the players who led this team to victory.

“We rely on them for offense, and they come through for us, so we can’t say enough about [them],” Cassidy said. “And they’re young guys. They did it last year as rookies, an they’re doing it this year as second-year players.”

Still, Cassidy said, the P-Bruins need more in order to get the job done on Friday — and they need more from the rest of the lineup, not just from the usual suspects. In order to get a win, the P-Bruins are going to require scoring from the bottom two lines, not just the top two.

“We’ve been a balanced scoring team, and that’s where we need a little bit of secondary scoring,” he said. “That’s what we need, I think, to get us over the top. I think our bottom-of-the-lineup type guys have been very solid away from the puck; now, we need a goal or two from them.

“If we get that, and then Koko and Griff and even [Ryan Spooner] continues to make plays, then we’re going to be fine.”

In Griffith’s eyes, the gameplan should be simple heading into Friday. The P-Bruins need to just play their game, keep things light and keep the confidence high. If they do that, he said, they know they have what it takes to continue their season.

“Everybody’s feeling pretty good,” he said. “We had a day off [Wednesday], so we’re confident with the guys we have in the room that we can get it done, and it’s just about going out there and doing it.”

Vatrano Adjusting Well

When the Bruins signed East Longmeadow, Mass., native Frank Vatrano to his first professional contract in mid-March, it was a dream come true.

“I grew up being a Bruins fan, watching with my parents on the couch and all that,” Vatrano said in March. “Even my closest friends are really big Bruins fans, and my family are also really big Bruins fans, so I think that’s what makes it much better.

“Everyone’s so happy for me, which makes it awesome.”

Vatrano joined Providence shortly after signing and got into his first game on March 27. In five total regular-season contests with the P-Bruins, the forward tallied a goal and 15 total shots on net.

The professional game is an adjustment from what the UMass product is accustomed to, but even after just a handful of games, he feels himself progressing.

“It’s obviously been really exciting,” Vatrano said on Thursday. “The guys have been great since I’ve been here — kind of made it a really smooth transition for me. It’s obviously a little bit different from college, with the scheduling; I’m used to going to practice every day and then practicing, and now, you have a lot of free time and basically get to focus on hockey. It’s been great so far.”

Plenty of players who enter the Bruins’ system find it to be a challenge; it prioritizes defense over offense, which is often a difficult adjustment for players to make. Vatrano, however, has found it to be a positive challenge.

“It’s kind of a similar style that we played at UMass — really up-tempo, and [Cassidy] really preaches defense first and offense will come,” Vatrano said. “It’s been a good transition for me, and I feel like I’ve been fitting in when I’ve been in the lineup, so it’s been good.”

Vatrano has yet to get into a playoff game, but that doesn’t faze him. Already, he is thinking about the elements of his game he can improve upon as he prepares for next year, which will mark his first full professional season.

“[I’m] just looking to get better all around — my offense, my defense,” he said. “Obviously, the guys are a lot bigger and stronger, so that’s definitely something I’m going to need to do. I think just work on my skating so I can get in and out of areas as quick as possible.”

As Vatrano has expected, friendships with the rest of the P-Bruins have been quick to form, and he looks forward to strengthening those next year.

“Playing hockey my whole life, I think it’s been pretty easy to [develop] friendships like that,” he said. “Especially being a small group of 20-something guys, you kind of almost have to get along together. I think it’s been good.

“The guys have been really good to me, like I said, and I can’t wait to keep going with the season.”

Robins Skating

For about a week, fan favorite Bobby Robins has been joining the P-Bruins’ practices late and skating in a red no-contact jersey.

The sight is certainly an encouraging one for P-Bruins fans and Boston fans alike, who saw the journeyman make his NHL debut earlier this season after pursuing a professional career for about eight years. Robins hasn’t played, however, since suffering a concussion that came in the regular-season opener against Philadelphia.

The winger said on Thursday that though his recovery process has been gradual, he is feeling good and is certainly enjoying being out on the ice again.

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