BostonBruins.com -- The Providence Bruins came up short in the Calder Cup Playoffs, but they weren’t short on character.
After battling through the regular season, one of the AHL’s youngest teams found a way to stave off elimination three times in the postseason, before falling to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on May 21.
Prior to forcing that seventh game, Providence won two straight elimination games in the first round to overcome a veteran Springfield Falcons team in five games.
In Game 7 alone, they had to fight back from a 5-0 hole. After a shorthanded tally from defenseman David Warsofsky started the comeback with just 54 seconds left in the second period, the P-Bruins erupted for three straight goals in the third, with one from Ryan Spooner and a pair from Alexander Khokhlachev.
“Obviously, one goal away in a Game 7 is really disappointing, but at the same time, there was a lot of growth in the group, as a team, to come together,” said Providence captain, defenseman Mike Moore. “And we showed that we had a lot of character guys and character guys in the room, and character as a team, and we never gave up on anything, and you’re proud to be part of it.”
The rally was reminiscent of the big club’s big-time comebacks.
Led by veterans like Moore, fellow six-year pro Nick Johnson and journeyman Bobby Robins with nearly nine years of pro experience, a younger P-Bruins squad proved resilient.
The team was full of first year pros like forwards Khokhlachev, Seth Griffith and Matt Lindblad, defenseman Chris Casto and goalie Malcolm Subban.
Five of their top six playoff scorers were all 23 years old or younger, with Ryan Spooner, Khokhlachev, Griffith, Warsofsky and Craig Cunningham. The sixth - Lindblad - is 24.
Moore, Johnson and Robins led the charge in their own ways, whether by settling down the back end, showing fight up front, or by sparking the team. The leadership that they displayed all season certainly came out in Game 7, especially between the second and third periods, when the team needed to dig deep.
“Guys knew that we had a tough hill to climb, but at the same time, we knew we weren’t the kind of team that quits, and I think we all kind of looked around at each other, and knew that we were going to show up, and anything was possible,” said Moore.
“And we knew that if we played hard till the end, we’d leave it all out there on the ice, and that was kind of how we played all season - we battled to get into the playoffs and then we had a really hard-fought series that went the full distance in the first round.”
“We said it wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t be the way that we know how to do things if we didn’t battle back in this game, and never quit in this game. That was the attitude that we had all year.”
The P-Bruins did all of this while also facing injury adversity.
In Game 7, the team was without regular Matt Fraser, sidelined by a broken foot, after playing up with Boston for the final three games against Montreal; Justin Florek (lower body), who spent the first round with Boston, notching his first NHL playoff goal; Zach Trotman (finger); and Joe Morrow (upper body).
In the final months of the regular season, Fraser also missed several weeks with a knee injury, Morrow had been sidelined since early February with a knee injury, Warsofsky was sidelined with a hand injury, Alexander Fallstrom missed two months with a shoulder injury, and Nick Johnson spent a month and a half out of the lineup with an upper body injury. In late March, the P-Bruins lost first year pro Anthony Camara to an upper body injury for the season.
Aside from the list of injuries, the P-Bruins spent their final months of the regular season fighting their way through every game.
From February 1 through the final regular season game on April 19, 22 of their 30 games were one-goal decisions. Thirteen of those games went to overtime or the shootout.
Through it all, they earned the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and a spot in the postseason.
“That was kind of the story of our team,” said Johnson, who experienced the injury troubles firsthand down the stretch. “We were young, and not always controlling the game, but we always knew we could just stay with it and always had a chance.”
“Some games, it got away from us, like Game 7 there, but we always had a chance, and if it was 2-1, 3-1, 4-1, we still had a chance. We were never out, and we always enjoyed playing and trying to come back like that.”
Both through injuries, and comebacks, the young players got a chance to step up and gain invaluable experience.
Spooner put up 15 points with six goals and nine assists in 12 postseason games to lead Providence, while Khokhlachev came up big with nine goals and 14 points through his first 12 AHL playoff games.
Khokhlachev’s regular season totals mirrored that output, with 21 goals and 36 assists for 57 points and a plus-11 rating through 65 games, to finish third in rookie scoring.
Griffth’s rookie season saw him put up 20 goals and 30 assists for 50 points through 69 games. Lindblad, who saw time centering Khokhlachev and Griffith, earned eight goals and six assists for 24 points in his first year wearing Black & Gold.
During the regular season, the team had four players in the 20-goal club for the first time since 2008-09 - and all were 23 years old or younger, with Craig Cunningham (25 goals), Khokhlachev (21), Griffith (20) and Fraser (20) leading the way.
“It was awesome to see the improvement of the younger guys throughout the year and that correlated to the team having success and getting to the playoffs,” said Moore. “We wouldn’t have done it without our young guys, and I can’t say enough about all of them stepping up.”
“It was a team effort, and everyone contributed in their own way. When you’re part of a group like that, you see everyone pulling for each other, and you see the character that’s in the room, and that guys want to battle for each other, and never give up on anything. It’s something that you’re excited to be a part of, no matter how old you are.”
“You want to push yourself to be good for teammates, and we had that character, that culture in there.”
Overall, Providence went 40-25-2-9 on the season (91 points), reaching 40 wins and 90 points for the 10th time in the franchise’s 22 seasons, and making it to the Eastern Conference Semifinal for the second straight year.
What the team was able to accomplish through adversity is a testament to not only the players, but also the coaching staff with Head Coach Bruce ‘Butch’ Cassidy and Assistant Coach Kevin Dean.
“You can’t say enough about those guys,” said Moore. “As a team of coaches, they’re 100-percent committed to making the guys ready as hockey players and getting them ready for the next level, but also for us coming together as a team and having success down here.”
“So they find that balance of pushing guys to be good and also adopting that team culture that’s essential to win at any level, so they demand a lot out of you, and they provide you with the tools to get better.”
“You feel like even though you’re a veteran guy, you still feel like you’re always learning when you have good coaches around like that, so I know I learned a lot and felt that I added to my game, and obviously we had some success as a team, so I can’t say enough about how much you appreciate the season that those guys gave you.”
For eight P-Bruins this year, that season also led to their NHL debuts. Now full-time with Boston, Kevan Miller was the first to make his debut, followed by goalie Niklas Svedberg, Warsofsky, Trotman, Florek, Cunningham, Lindblad and Khokhlachev.
“The continuity throughout our coaching staff is a huge asset to our players. The job that Butch and Kevin do to help prepare our young players, as individuals and as players that can seamlessly integrate into the Bruins system, should not be undervalued,” said Assistant General Manager Don Sweeney. “Butch and Kevin teach and prepare our young players to be pros. They want nothing other than for every player to have an opportunity to play in the NHL.”
“They demand a lot of each player but they give them the opportunity to succeed and grow, if they are willing to work hard and put the team principles at the forefront.”
“They’re smart hockey guys here, and when you have the same systems, it’s pretty easy to fit in,” said Johnson. “They help guys get better, and get to the next level. It’s definitely nice having a steady hand behind the bench helping us do that.”
Cassidy often shows his pride for the players who get their shot at the NHL.
“They’re like my kids to me, so to see them go up, and the smiles on their faces, and their parents come and see them play, you know, it’s nice for us as well down here as a coaching staff,” he told me back in March.
Every P-Bruin who came up to Boston this season fit in seamlessly with the team.
“They’ve done a wonderful job with the young players and a lot of times those things go unnoticed, but certainly not here,” Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien said during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, after Florek and Fraser had helped step in with injuries. “They deserve a lot of credit for the success that we’ve had in sending players to fill in those holes.”
But it’s not only the systems that make the transition seamless; it’s the attitude.
“They work hard to create a ‘winning the right way mentality,’” said Sweeney, of the staff in Providence. “It is not always easy to balance development and winning at the AHL level, but our coaches do a great job.”
“Claude and his staff set the expectations for the players at training camp, and Butch and Kevin carry out the charge to have players ready to provide the necessary depth a successful organization needs.”