Pennsylvania's three teams have taken most of the headlines so far in the American Hockey League's Atlantic Division, but the Providence Bruins are making some noise of their own.
The Bruins have shaken off a slow start to push themselves into contention for the division lead with the Pennsylvania trio of the Hershey Bears, Lehigh Valley Phantoms and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, all legitimate Calder Cup contenders as the AHL season nears its midpoint.
Right with them are the Bruins, who have won six consecutive games and went 12-1-1-0 in December. They finished the month with back-to-back road wins at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Hershey last weekend.
"We kind of figured out our identity, what we were going to be," Providence captain Tommy Cross said. "At the start of the season, you don't really know. Maybe you're an offensive team. Maybe you're a chip-and-chase. Maybe you've got some skill and I think we realized we're a combination of everything."
That charge has sent Providence into third place in the Atlantic Division, two points off the pace set by league-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Providence began the season with two wins in their first nine games. But December and the return of goaltender Zane McIntyre from the Boston Bruins may have turned around its season after goaltender Malcolm Subban struggled early.
McIntyre, 24, won the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month award for December after going 9-0-0-0 with a 1.65 goals-against average and .947 save percentage in nine games. His 1.41 GAA and .951 save percentage lead the AHL this season.
Providence has also straightened out its early-season offensive struggles. The Bruins had 17 goals in its first nine games but have scored at least three goals per game in their six-game winning streak. They had five goals against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the AHL's top defensive team, in their win last Friday. Their improved offensive output has them 13th at 3.09 goals per game.
"We don't have a ton of skill, a ton of high-end playmakers, but we have a good team," first-year coach Kevin Dean said.
Rookie forward Jake DeBrusk, chosen by Boston with the No. 14 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, has started to figure out the pro game; he scored four goals in his past six games after scoring four in his first 27. Another AHL rookie, forward Peter Cehlarik, leads Providence with 14 goals in 27 games.
Veteran additions at forward, Wayne Simpson and Jordan Szwarz, have provided offensive stability; Simpson's 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists) lead the Bruins, and Szwarz is tied with Cehlarik for second place at 22 points. Providence also signed NHL veteran Chris Porter to a contract after he spent time on a tryout.
"Things have kind of fallen into place for us," Cross said. "We've learned what works for us, what our style is, but it's a work in progress. We're just growing as a team and finding our template that we've got to [use] every night.
"We don't trade chances. We play solidly. We play on the right side of the puck and we try to be responsible."
Dean, a veteran of 331 NHL games as a player, came up through the AHL with the Albany River Rats as a New Jersey Devils prospect in the 1990s. That pipeline supplied much of the talent that led to New Jersey's three Stanley Cup championships.
"We had a winning culture there in Albany and New Jersey," Dean said. "I think winning breeds winning.
"On paper, we're certainly not the greatest team. But I think now that winning has become expected. That's the expectation that we have going into every game, so there's commitment that comes along with that, teammates that you need to play for, not just yourself. I think that guys are buying into that."
Chicago Wolves forward Kenny Agostino won the CCM/AHL Player of the Week award for the period ending Sunday. He had nine points (five goals, four assists) in four games, including a four-goal game and an assist last Saturday in a 5-2 win at the Iowa Wild, the first five-point game in the AHL this season. Agostino also was named the CCM/AHL Player of the Month for December with 25 points (seven goals, 18 assists) in 14 games, the most in a calendar month since January 2010. … Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's Jake Guentzel won the CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month award. He scored 11 goals and 17 points in 10 games.
Agostino has taken a 12-point lead in league scoring at 46 points (15 goals, 31 assists). … Guentzel's 18 goals leads the AHL and his 34 points lead all rookies. … Lehigh Valley is first on the power play at 22.7 percent and goals per game (3.71) while Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's goals-against per game (2.25) and penalty kill (86.8 percent) each are first.
WHO'S HOT, WHO'S NOT
Agostino has an eight-game point streak (six goals, 12 assists). … The Chicago Wolves and Ontario Reign each have six-game winning streaks. … The Utica Comets are on a nine-game losing streak (0-4-4-1). … The Charlotte Checkers and Hartford Wolf Pack are tied for last in the AHL. … The Bridgeport Sound Tigers are 2-8-0-0 in their past 10 games.
ON THE MOVE
The Checkers lost goaltender Michael Leighton to the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday and goaltender Daniel Altshuller returned to Charlotte. … Lehigh Valley added goaltender Anthony Stolarz and forward Taylor Leier from the Philadelphia Flyers. … Defenseman Yohann Auvitu is with the Albany Devils on loan from New Jersey. Albany defenseman Brandon Gormley has also returned from the Spengler Cup, where he skated for Canada. … The Bakersfield Condors have added forward Taylor Beck from the Edmonton Oilers while forward Anton Lander is headed to the NHL.
AROUND THE AHL
The AHL has named its four coaches for the 2017 AHL All-Star Classic. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's Clark Donatelli (Atlantic Division), Benoit Groulx of the Syracuse Crunch (North Division), Todd Nelson of the Grand Rapids Griffins (Central Division), and Ontario's Mike Stothers (Pacific Division) will coach. Lehigh Valley will host the event Jan. 29-30. … Bakersfield will host Ontario in the AHL's ninth outdoor game on Saturday.