SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Providence trails their Eastern Conference Finals series against the Syracuse Crunch just two games to one. They have been outscored by a slim margin of 12-9.
But as close as the first three games of the series have been, the P-Bruins have yet to achieve the very important task of gaining a lead.
Providence won Game 2 in overtime after tying things late in the second period. And in Games 1 and 3, the P-Bruins dug themselves substantial holes before making things interesting with strong third-period charges.
They know that relying on late-game comebacks is less than ideal if they plan on advancing to the Calder Cup Final, thus making an improved start the focus heading into Game 4 on Friday night.
"We haven't played with the lead not one minute this series," said Providence head coach Kevin Dean. "That's got to be our mantra. If we fall behind early next game, we've got to push back and get the lead at some point."
Despite the tough starts, that push back has been a calling card of this team during this postseason, an encouraging trait for Providence captain Tommy Cross.
"It's something that we've been talking a lot about is our starts, trying to grab the lead because it does make a difference," said Cross. "At the same time, it is a 60-minute game and we've shown that we can come back from deficits. I think it's not having too many highs and lows in our game, getting right to our game and sustaining that right through the 60 minutes.
"I think getting a lead is important, but making sure we don't have those dips in our performance is just as important."
Cross, the P-Bruins' all-time leader in games played, credited his team's bevy of young talent for being the source of Providence's resilience.
"I think the resiliency is actually driven by a lot of our young guys," said Cross. "If we get behind, they just keep playing and it's a credit to them. That's something we've worked on over the course of the year, just sticking with it, not getting down, not selling the farm and trying to do too much when we get behind."
Video: Tommy Cross reflects on Game 3 loss at Syracuse
The teams combined for 20 minor penalties - 10 of which were for roughing - in Game 3. There were several scrums after the whistle, including a sizable scuffle at the end of the second period, for which three players on each side were sent to the box for roughing.
Such intensity could set the tone for the remainder of the series.
"Well, I think it's two competitive teams, they've got some of their smaller skills guys that play really hard. I think it's important to make life difficult for them, I don't think we've done a good enough job of that," said Cross.
"I think the physicality's got to go up, just finishing checks. It's a long series so those bumps add up over time. I think it's good for us, it gets our energy going, it gets our legs going and kind of feeds the rest of our game.
Dean echoed Cross's sentiments, acknowledging that he encourages more physicality from his team, as he believes it keeps the players more engaged.
"I think that helps us a little bit," he said. "We're not going to go out there and run these guys out of the rink, I get it. If we can establish some physicality - I think any time you're physical you're forced to move your feet. If you want to make body contact you have to move your feet, it's a good thing. I'd like to see us physical if only for the fact that it forces us to move our feet.
"Sometimes you have to play with emotions, but you can't play emotionally. I think we crossed that line a couple times [in Game 3]."
Video: Syracuse tops Providence 5-4 in Game 3
Acciari A Game-Time Decision
Noel Acciari, who has missed the first three games of the series, will be a game-time decision Friday night. During the morning skate, Acciari skated alongside Jake DeBrusk and Colby Cave.
"We're hoping to get him in," said Dean. "But a game-time decision, so I'm not sure [if there will be lineup changes."
Regardless of which team he has played for this season, Syracuse netminder Mike McKenna has had the P-Bruins' number. While suiting up for the Springfield Thunderbirds earlier in the year, McKenna went 1-0-1 against Providence with a 1.94 goals against average and .920 save percentage.
And that success has continued during the Eastern Conference Finals with the Crunch. While McKenna has allowed nine goals through three games, he has stymied Providence for long stretches, particularly early in games. He has made at least 33 saves in each of the first three contests and, overall, has stopped 104 of 113 shots that have come his way.
"He's good. There's some pucks lying around him, but we've got to get to those pucks in the first and second period and play with the lead," said Dean.
"I thought we had some pretty good chances and pucks just lying there, some we just couldn't get to," added Heinen. "Sometimes rebounds pop out and we have to bury those."
Heinen At the Top
Heinen's two-goal performance in Game 3 gave him eight for the postseason to go along with nine assists. His 17 points in 15 Calder Cup Playoff games have him tied with Ryan Carpenter of the San Jose Barracuda for the league lead. The 21-year-old's eight goals are second only to Carpenter's nine. According to the AHL, Heinen has set the record for most playoff points in a single posteason by a Providence rookie, surpassing David Krejci (16 in 2007) and Brad Marchand (15 in 2009).
"I've seen a nice evolution to his game," said Dean. "He came down from Boston, had a really good training camp, had a pretty good first week or two and then he struggled a bit. But he worked through it, he didn't pout, he didnt complain, he didn't gripe. He put his head down and went to work, worked on the things that he wasn't good enough at and he's made improvements in those areas.
"He has improvement to go, for sure. But because of that he's found his game again and he's getting a lot of good looks because he's stronger on pucks and getting his body in there and using his body position. Credit to him for working through a slump and doing it the right way."