As Providence enters the final leg of the regular season, P-Bruins coach Jay Leach knows that every point along the way is important.
"It'll be a dog fight for the rest of the year," said Leach. "We have six teams within 12 points of each other, which means every night will be a battle. The majority of our games are obviously against divisional opponents as well, which should make for an exciting finish. It's going to be very intense and points will be at a premium."
The P-Bruins coaching staff has placed an emphasis on playing well on both sides of the puck this season and the results have brought success. Providence currently has a plus-26 goal differential on the season. That's good for second in the Atlantic Division, trailing only Charlotte at plus-30. The plus-26 differential is also good for third in the Eastern Conference, with the Belleville Senators leading the way at plus-38.
"We put a lot of emphasis on it," said Leach. "Since we've been here, we've probably been considered a defensive team. I think this year, due to personnel, we've got a bit more of an offensive look. As a staff, we're trying to do a good job of celebrating our offensive instincts and ability, but at the same time hoping our players grasp the defensive mindset when it needs to be grasped. I think we just want to get the most out of every guy and they've done a good job to this point."
A young team with 11 players that are 23 years old or younger currently on the roster, the season has been a learning experience for the P-Bruins, but Leach likes the way the team has responded to the adversity that will inevitably be faced during the 76-game season.
"Our response as a group is one of our strengths," said Leach. "There's been times this year where we've shown a lack of urgency to start a game. We'll come out and we'll have a bad period - typical things that will happen throughout a season. Where I think I'm encouraged is there is a response.
"If our team is challenged after a bad period, bad game, or whatever it might be, we do get a response out of our group. I'm encouraged by that. The ups and downs of an American Hockey League team are just that. Wherever you are in this league, you're dealing with call-ups and injuries, that's just a part of it. At the end of the day, our guys just want to go out there and play and I think our mindset with all of that has been really good."
A Couple Young Studs
Rookie Jack Studnicka has been stellar for Providence this season, leading the team with 19 goals, 20 assists, and 39 points. His six shorthanded goals this season also lead the AHL.
A second-round pick (53rd overall) by the Boston Bruins in the 2017 NHL Draft, Studnicka has led the charge offensively for Providence this season, proving his ability to carry a heavy workload, despite being only 21 years old.
"I can't say I'm surprised about Jack," said Leach. "Going all the way back to the first rookie tournament, Jack is just a gamer. He's been someone who's always skating and always competing. He can see the ice well. He's just a very smart and effective hockey player. Most games I've ever seen that kid play, he's effective.
"Am I surprised by how effective he is right now as a 20-year-old? I'm not necessarily surprised, but I'm certainly impressed. It's a tough league and it's especially tough when you're always playing against the top line. You have a little bit of a name now, so teams know who you are when you're playing them. Especially when you're playing teams as much as we do like Springfield or Bridgeport. It's impressive that he's been able to perform in those conditions as a 21-year-old.
"As far as the way he plays, how smart he is and all that stuff, I think we saw that right away. The one thing that I don't think I knew enough about is Jack's drive to be the best. He's got a real love for the game that not a lot of guys have. He's constantly watching it. He wants to know how he's doing, and he wants to know how to improve his play. He really is a true pro at 20 years old and that's something that, until you're with him on a day-to-day basis, you just don't know. When you really get to know him, it's easy to see why he's so good."
Another young, promising prospect playing in Providence is 22-year-old Trent Frederic, who was drafted by the Bruins in the first round (29th overall) of the 2016 NHL Draft. Frederic currently sits in second place among Providence skaters with 19 assists on the season.
His 26 points on the season are a career high for the St. Louis, Missouri native, while his 122 penalty minutes lead the AHL. The willingness to stick up for his teammates is something that has earned Frederic respect in the locker room and on the ice.
"The thing with Fred is he's got a lot of intangibles that not a lot of players have," said Leach. "He's big. He's willing to protect his teammates and engage physically. He's got a heck of a shot. He's got nice hands. He can skate. He's got all of the skillset. It's just a matter of being able to put it all together and now that he's coming into his professional career, he's learning how to do just that and become more effective.
"I'm very encouraged by the type of person Freddy is and the way that he cares about his teammates. It's something that I wish every player had. It's a quality that will forever be with him and help him with whatever he does in his life.
"In the short term, with his career, it will certainly help. His team will rally around him and he will lead the charge in that regard. I'm very encouraged by that and very encouraged by his performance. We're excited for him to continue to grow and really become a master of his own craft in being a big, powerful two-way center that can do things on both sides of the puck."
Follow the Leaders
The P-Bruins will lean heavily on the young, upcoming talent on their roster, but will also look to leaders in the locker room in one of the most pivotal points of the season. That includes guys like Josiah Didier, Paul Carey, Alex Petrovic, Brendan Woods, and Brendan Gaunce.
Didier, a defenseman from Littleton, Colorado, was brought in this season after winning the Calder Cup with the Charlotte Checkers last season. An alternate captain for Providence, Didier's performance on the ice this season earned him a two-year contract extension in late January.
"Leadership in the room is huge," said Leach. "Dids is a leader by action. Paul is as well. Dids blocks shots and he's hitting guys. You watch him play and everyone sees a guy that absolutely gives everything he possibly can, every single shift. That example of how to play the game is invaluable for our entire team."
Another veteran presence in the locker room is captain Paul Carey. Carey was acquired in a trade last season and made in instant offensive impact for Providence, scoring 22 goals and adding 11 assists for 33 points in just 30 games. This season, the Weymouth, Massachusetts, native is second on the team in goals (18) and points (33).
"PC is a very skilled player who can really make plays, but he's also got a really nice way in the room with guys," said Leach. "It's subtle. He's not necessarily a hugely outspoken guy, but he relates well to most, if not all of our players. His performance on the ice backs that up.
"The one thing I'd say about PC is, this year because he is the captain, I do notice him trying to play the right way, which sometimes may not always be the way he's played the game as an offensive guy. His willingness to concede sometimes and chip a puck and go get it shows to the group that even a guy who's consistently produced points and been the guy on the scoresheet is willing to do that. That doesn't give anyone in that room an excuse that they shouldn't be doing the same thing when a leading point producer is doing that stuff."
Petrovic, Woods, and Gaunce were all additions to the P-Bruins this season and each of them have been looked to lead in different ways throughout the season.
"We have a ton of leaders," said Leach. "Petrovic has been a consistent force for us. He's been able to play a lot and find his game. I know that every guy in that room loves him. He's just a terrific person and he's been great.
"Woodsy sets a tone with his physicality and his willingness to step up for his teammates. He's been terrific all year.
"Gauncer's a little bit more vocal in the room. I think that's important to have an older guy who's a little bit more of a presence in the room with his words. Sometimes there's a lot of silence in that room and you need someone to say something.
"I think we have a very strong group of leaders who have really helped bring along some of the younger guys in that room."
Overall, Leach is encouraged by the group he has in Providence and feels the ability to make a run is there. With 23 games remaining and just 12 points separating the top six teams in the Atlantic Division, the road to the Calder Cup Playoffs will not be an easy one for Providence. However, the team is embracing the challenge and looking to enjoy the final push.
"I'm encouraged by this team's outlook," said Leach. "I love this time of year. It's a terrific time of year. You don't have to worry so much about the fluff and all that other stuff, you just worry about winning games. I think we've got a bunch of guys in that room that feel the same way. We'll see how it goes."