PROVIDENCE — Exactly 11 weeks ago, in this very same building, Seth Grifith’s season was derailed by a knee injury.
It was the very first exhibition game on Boston’s schedule, and Griffith — a third-year pro hoping to crack the big club for good after an extended audition the season prior — came into camp on a mission.
And in the second period of a game against New Jersey on Sept. 20, when he collided with Devils winger Tuomo Ruutu, that mission was interrupted.
Griffith’s diagnosis was a sprained MCL. He would miss the remainder of training camp and wouldn’t be able to skate again until the 2015-16 season was underway. It was a rude interruption to a promising beginning.
“It’s tough coming back from an injury like that,” Griffith said following Providence’s practice at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Wednesday. “I’ve never had one like that, so I didn’t really know what to expect. It lingered for a little bit there.
“I feel like I’m 100 percent now. I feel comfortable doing all of the little things in the corner that I used to, and when I first came back, I was a little hesitant to do, so I feel like I’m 100 percent.”
In late October, Griffith returned to game action for the P-Bruins. The team he returned to was one that had been ravaged by injuries through the first couple of weeks of the season — to goaltender Malcolm Subban, to fellow playmaking forward Austin Czarnik, to bruising veterans Brian Ferlin and Ben Sexton.
The struggles showed in the standings, too: The P-Bruins won just four of their first five games before Griffith returned to the lineup.
In late October, Griffith, at just 22, found himself a veteran among a very young team with a lot of potential. So he strapped on the workboots and got down to business.
“It’s a little weird being kind of one of the veteran guys and only being [in] my third year, but we’ve got a lot of first-year guys this year, so it’s good for me to take kind of a leadership role,” Griffith said. “I think I was more of a leader, obviously, my last few years in junior, so now, I’m being a leader in pro.
“It’s nice; you’re always a leader in some way, but as an older guy, you’ve got to talk a little bit more to some of the first-year players and stuff like that, helping them out, so it’s been different this year, but I’m enjoying it.”
The first two months of the 2015-16 season were a learning curve for this crop of P-Bruins. The injuries seemingly haven’t stopped coming, but lately, this group seems to have turned a corner. The goaltending has improved, and so has the finish at the other end, and it has been apparent in the win column: Providence has won four straight games, including three in a row at home last weekend.
“We look around the room and we know we have a good team,” Griffith said. “We’ve had guys that have played a lot of big minutes. We have guys that have played NHL games in there, too. It’s difficult when you’re not stringing together some wins, but these past four games, I think we’ve played really well.
“We’ve won four in a row, but that’s in the past. We’ve just got to keep stringing together some wins, hopefully, and climbing the standings.”
Along the way, Griffith has rolled with the punches. Given the rampant injuries — coupled with some NHL recalls — it has been hard for Head Coach Bruce Cassidy to roll consistent lines. There has been lots of juggling. Sometimes, when Max Talbot is with Providence, Griffith plays with him and Alex Khokhlachev; in the most recent game, though, he skated with Colby Cave and Anton Blidh, both first-year players.
Clearly, the three of them had something going against Springfield on Sunday: Griffith netted four points on two goals and two assists in a 6-1 win at the Dunk, exactly 11 weeks after sustaining the sprained MCL.
Cave and Blidh are very different linemates from Talbot and Khokhlachev, and perhaps different linemates from those to which Griffith has become accustomed. They thrive on physicality, and while they aren’t necessarily skill players, they open up space and create opportunities for a player like Griffith.
“They’re up and down guys; they play hard,” Griffith said. “They’re first-year guys, so you know they’re going to be working hard every shift. Blidh, he likes to get into all the scrums and stuff like that, and they both play hard, so I think it balances out our line pretty well. Obviously, it’s been working, too, in the last game, so hopefully we can continue to produce offensively, but also stay a plus on the scoresheet as well.”
The AHL season is long. It’s a grind. There is a long way to go from here, but that also means there is plenty of time for Providence to turn things around and erase the memories of a tough start.
For now, Griffith is focused on perpetuating the momentum generated by this team’s first winning streak of the season. He is encouraging his teammates to focus on the little things — taking care of their own end, clean breakouts, focusing on solid defense and trusting that offensive opportunities will follow.
“Obviously, we need to take care of our own end first, especially being a young team — I learned my first year, that’s one of the toughest things to do,” he said. “Your last year in junior, your last year in college, you’re one of the older guys, so you can kind of get away from that stuff a little bit, but in pro, you’ve got to be on top of that every night. I think we’ve been doing that a lot better, and obviously, you can tell with the wins we’ve been getting.”
Griffith started off this season ready to take the next step. It didn’t necessarily work out that way — not yet, at least — but until it does, he will just keep on grinding in Providence.
“They’re going to call up whoever’s been playing the best, right?” Griffith said. “So you’ve just got to focus on your game every practice, every game. If you put in the time and you put in the work ethic and you’re playing well, you’re going to get your chance to get called up.
“So you’ve just got to be ready for when your chance comes.”
A Big Weekend
A 3-2 overtime win against Portland on Dec. 4 marked was big for the P-Bruins — not only because they fought back from a one-goal deficit in the second period, but because it marked their first winning streak of the season.
Since then, Providence has added two more wins — both over Springfield on Dec. 5 and 6 — to stretch their winning streak to four. But even though it was not necessarily evident in the standings, Providence’s season started turning around long before then — during a two-game trip to Pennsylvania the week prior.
The P-Bruins dropped both of those games to Hershey and Wilkes-Barre, but there were signs that better play was to come.
“I think we turned the corner on that trip to Pennsylvania,” Cassidy said. “You could start to see us, and our spirits, as well, come around. We were getting more players back into the lineup, drifting in, and it carried over [last] week.”
The way Cassidy sees it, there were a few factors that contributed to last weekend’s success. One of them was playing three straight games at home. Another was finally getting Griffith, Khokhlachev and Czarnik back into the lineup at the same time for a sustained period of time.
Of course, the injury bug hasn’t disappeared. On Dec. 4, the P-Bruins lost forward Noel Acciari to a broken jaw after he got hit in the face with a slapshot.
But since losing him, Providence has found a way to withstand. Cassidy expects that to continue this weekend, as the team prepares for three more games against Hartford (twice) and Portland.
“We’re able to get some consistent offensive possession time with different lines, so that’s helped,” Cassidy said. “We haven’t had that luxury all year. We’re trying to build players’ games up, first-year guys here up front, that it’s just hard to come into the league and dominate the puck. That was one of the biggest differences I noticed.”
Providence’s goaltending has improved, too, allowing just four goals during that four-game winning streak. But that, too, has been a product of stronger play up front.
“It makes us better defensively when you have the puck more,” Cassidy said. “It allowed the goaltenders to settle down and play and have some good nights, easier nights — not that we’ve been a team that’s given up a lot, but when you get a lead, every goaltender will tell you, they can relax a little more, and so does the rest of the bench.”
It was a scary sight when first-year forward Acciari went down against Portland after taking a puck to the face. The good news, however, is that he is doing better than some may have anticipated, according to Cassidy.
Cassidy confirmed that Acciari broke his jaw and had plates inserted in it, but the jaw is not wired shut.
“I don’t know a lot about that injury, what the big difference between the two is, but I understand it won’t be as long [of a recovery] as we probably thought,” Cassidy said.
Acciari’s estimated recovery time is approximately three weeks, and upon returning, he will most likely wear facial protection, but Cassidy said that will not require much of an adjustment, as Acciari wore it in college.