2008-09 Season Ends in Eastern Conference Finals
On October 8, 2008, this year's rendition of the Providence Bruins featured an opening night line-up of six first-year players and an average team age of 22 years and four months, the youngest in the American Hockey League. When the season came to a close on May 25, 2009 in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the club had a dozen AHL rookies on the ice and several more watching from the stands. In those eight months, the P-Bruins totaled 52 wins, including 43 during the regular season, all under the guidance of first-year head coach Rob Murray and a National Hockey League experienced assistant in Bruce Cassidy.
Murray was promoted to his new post on August 21, 2008 from the role of assistant, which he occupied for the P-Bruins under departed head coach Scott Gordon for the previous five seasons. Gordon and Murray helped Providence to its second-best mark in franchise history in 2007-08 at 55-18-3-4 and 117 points but that team had its season end in surprising fashion, falling in six games to the Portland Pirates in the Atlantic Division Finals. A short time after the Boston Bruins' annual summer rookie camp, Gordon left his hometown organization for his first NHL position since tending goal as the new head coach of the New York Islanders.
Providence endured significant offseason turnover from its veteran-led clubs of recent years and Murray found himself with few players of lengthy professional service time, but reliable ones in captain Jeremy Reich, NHL vet Peter Schaefer and fourth-year defenseman Matt Lashoff, along with off-season acquisitions Martin St. Pierre, Johnny Boychuk and Ryan Stokes.
Also joining the fold were a slew of boys entering their first full pro seasons from juniors, college or very limited AHL experience. Among them were forwards Brad Marchand, Mikko Lehtonen, Zach Hamill, Jordan Knackstedt, Matt Marquardt and Levi Nelson, defensemen Jeff Penner and Andrew Bodnarchuk, plus goaltender Kevin Regan.
Holdovers from last season included second-year phenom Tuukka Rask between the pipes, offensively-talented Martins Karsums, gritty forward Vladimir Sobotka, face-off specialist Wacey Rabbit, reliable defenseman Adam McQuaid, hard-nosed winger Byron Bitz and steady defender Matt Hunwick. Ultimately, Karsums was the only one of last year's top nine scorers to return.
Despite their youth, the P-Bruins were carried by their leadership, enthusiasm and energy. As a result, they came out of the gate strong with five wins and 11 points in their first six games of the year. From there, Providence rarely relinquished its hold of first-place and never sat lower than a second-place tie in the Atlantic Division standings all season. Boychuk, who entered the year with a career-best 32 points, got off to a sensational start with 12 points in just eight October games, earning an AHL Player of the Week award while regularly displaying a cannon of a shot on the power play.
November was one of Providence's strongest months, capped by a six-game winning streak at the Dunkin' Donuts Center. The club finished the month with a 9-5-0-0 record and 18 points, a total matched just once when the P-Bruins enjoyed an 8-2-0-2 February. Karsums, in his third season with the Bruins organization, transitioned himself from an offensive threat in year one to an offensive force by the end of year two and never showed signs of slowing early in year three. After an eight-point October, Karsums, an All-Star, nearly doubled that total with 15 points in November, showing consistency with points in all but three of his 14 contests.
The P-Bruins struggled in December with a 5-7-0-1 mark, the only month in which the club did not finish with a winning record. December also began a two-month trend where players were constantly shuttling Interstate-95 between Boston and Providence. Boychuk and Lashoff, the team's top two defensemen with Hunwick already in the NHL, missed the opening week of December due to recall. Boychuk returned while Lashoff remained for nearly two months. St. Pierre, Karsums and Sobotka all enjoyed call-ups as well, some for days and others for weeks, decimating the P-Bruins' top line and top power play unit but the squad forged on with 23 man-advantage goals over the two months. Nevertheless, it was call-ups that dramatically changed the look of the Providence roster. By the end of January, little did the P-Bruins know it at the time, Karsums and Bitz had played in Rhode Island for the final time of the season.
Bitz, a fourth round Bruins draft pick in 2003, earned his first career NHL recall in his second pro season on January 10 and never returned for another game after becoming a fixture on Boston's hard-hitting checking unit. Karsums, meanwhile, came and went a number of times without appearing in an AHL game following the league's All-Star break, thanks to a trip home to play for the Latvian National Team and a lengthy stint in Boston.
With lines constantly changing in Providence and lesser known players called upon for bigger roles, one man stood out among the rest. Marchand, a small but feisty forward in his first pro campaign, matched his first three months' production in January alone with 16 points and he did so with exactly the same totals, five goals and 11 assists. The rookie, named the AHL's top first-year player in January, followed his superb start to '09 with a 15-point February but there was another rookie beginning to garner attention, the smooth skating Lehtonen from Finland. After taking a couple of months to get into an offensive rhythm, Lehtonen, who eventually led the team with 28 goals during the regular season, exploded for eight goals and 13 points in February, including three multiple-goal games and his first career hat trick in a four-point game at Portland on Valentine's Day.
February became March with an overlapping eight-game road trip, during which the P-Bruins went 2-3-0-3 through stops in Toronto, Winnipeg and a handful of cities around the United States. The trip concluded with a win at the Rochester Americans after five straight losses, propelling Providence to a string of eight of nine games with points. But overshadowing the road woes and the success that followed was the annual NHL Trade Deadline on March 4. With Boston poised for a deep Stanley Cup Playoff run and in need of some help on the power play, the parent Bruins acquired Mark Recchi from the Tampa Bay Lightning for Karsums and Lashoff, instantly trimming Providence's ideal top man-advantage unit by two-fifths and removing 62 points in 76 man-games from the fold. The P-Bruins neglected to make any impactful offensive additions but watched as many of their young talent pushed for a larger role. Penner, seeing consistent power play time, Hamill and Knackstedt all cracked the double-digit goals mark for the season while the likes of Boychuk, Lehtonen and Rabbit were regularly finding the score sheet.
Providence clinched its 11th straight postseason berth and 15th overall after a shootout win on April 4 at Portland, fitting as the P-Bruins and Pirates would be only 11 days away from a first round playoff showdown. The regular season concluded on April 11 with the P-Bruins finishing second in the Atlantic Division at 43-29-2-6 for 94 points. Many of the team's regulars received rest in the latter games of the year, including Boychuk, the P-Bruins' Most Valuable Player and Top Defenseman, his co-scoring champ St. Pierre, each with 66 points, Marchand, the club's Rookie of the Year with a freshman-high 59 points and Reich, the ninth-year pro with a career-best 21 goals. With such mainstays out, among others, Providence continued to tweak its defensive corps.
In what were in essence "defensive tryouts" for the final month of the regular season, the P-Bruins welcomed in and subsequently sent home several blue-liners of varying backgrounds, including Bryan Miller, Jason Fredericks, Victor Bartley and Denis Reul, with Hunwick up, Lashoff traded, and Bodnarchuk and Kevin Schaeffer injured. Stokes returned after missing 64 games due to a variety of injuries and Matt Stephenson, acquired from the Manitoba Moose just prior to Boston dealing Lashoff, found himself in and out of the lineup. Among the fresh faces was the undrafted David Kolomatis, up from the Ontario Hockey League's Owen Sound Attack after his junior season came to an early end. The unproven Kolomatis became a fixture on Cassidy's half of the bench and between he, Boychuk, the Eddie Shore Award winning All-Star, Penner, McQuaid, Stokes and the return of Bodnarchuk, the club found a defense it liked at just the right time of the year.
The P-Bruins entered the postseason against the third-seeded Pirates, matching up with Portland in the playoffs for the fourth time since 2004. Providence aimed for redemption after Portland ended the P-Bruins' 2007-08 season in the Division Finals. Portland claimed Game 1 of the best-of-seven set with a 3-0 shutout win behind Jhonas Enroth's 28 saves. But, just as the Pirates did to eliminate the P-Bruins last year, Providence reeled off four straight wins to sink the Pirates' ship. The task was not easy as the P-Bruins were on the winning side of three 2-1 decisions but the goaltending of Rask and team defense received the bulk of the credit. Rask, with 33 wins and a 2.50 goals-against-average in his sophomore season, plus a one appearance blanking of the New York Rangers in the NHL, finished the series with a 1.20 GAA and .959 save percentage after allowing only one goal in each of Providence's four wins. The defense allowed seven goals in the series - including one empty net goal - and limited AHL Rookie of the Year Nathan Gerbe, All-Rookie Team member Tim Kennedy and veteran Mathieu Darche to just one assist. On special teams, the P-Bruins' penalty kill was spectacular at 19-for-20 (95%). Offensively, the club spread out its production with all but four of its 18 position players recording points, led by Sobotka and St. Pierre, each with five. The series win was the first against Portland for Providence since 1995, improving to 2-4 all-time.
In an improbable win, the fourth-seeded Worcester Sharks upset the top-ranked Hartford Wolf Pack in six games in the other Division Semifinals series for the franchise's first-ever playoff series win, setting the stage for a Providence-Worcester match-up in the Division Finals. It was the first-ever postseason meeting for the Route 146 rivals but not the first for the two cities after three prior battles between the P-Bruins and IceCats, all Providence wins. The Sharks, like the P-Bruins, had momentum on their side after four straight wins to eliminate the Wolf Pack following two losses to open the series. Providence got off to a strong start to the series, winning each of the first two games of the set despite an eight-day layoff between contests. Worcester, though, had history in its rearview mirror after becoming only the 20th team in the AHL to ever come back to win a series from a 2-0 deficit in round one. Calm and collected, the Sharks won Games 3 and 4 to make the series a best-of-three but, from there, the set belonged to the team with experience on its side. The P-Bruins took Game 5 by a 4-3 margin at The Dunk and celebrated a fifth trip in 11 years to the Eastern Conference Finals on the DCU Center ice behind a 5-1 shark-bite of their own in Game 6. In the series, Providence's power play was dominant at 7-for-26 (26.9%) while All-Star centerman St. Pierre led all P-Bruins with four goals and eight points. Largely responsible for the club's success was the line of Reich, Rabbit and Kirk MacDonald, combing for 11 points and shutdown defense.
Entering the Conference Finals against the league's top regular season team in the East, the Hershey Bears, the P-Bruins were underdogs for the first time in the playoffs. The Bears breezed through a four-game series sweep of the Philadelphia Phantoms and were pushed to the brink in a seven-game win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, including two shutout wins facing elimination. The winner of the Providence-Hershey series would move on to the Calder Cup Finals, where the P-Bruins advanced one time in 1999 for a championship victory. Hershey, in its 71st season, appeared in two finals over the last three years, winning the Calder Cup in 2006. Overall, the Bears entered the series with a chance at a 21st finals appearance and the opportunity to make a run at a 10th league crown.
The P-Bruins got off to a strong start to Game 1 at the Giant Center behind two power play goals, setting the tone for their man-advantage prowess in the series (8-for-18, 44.4%). Providence ultimately prevailed in the opener as Rask made 30 saves and Marquardt scored his first career playoff goal for the game-winner. The Bears earned the split at home with a 2-1 win the next night, a game that remained scoreless until early in the third period. The series shifted north to the Ocean State for the next three games of the set, where Providence was one of the top teams in the league during the regular season at 27-12-0-1. Hershey, meanwhile, was equally impressive at 22-13-2-3 on the road, setting the tone for what many expected to be three Bear-on-Bear cage matches. Lost opportunities, meanwhile, proved to be the ultimate obstacle for the P-Bruins after squandering leads of 3-0 and 4-2 in Game 3 and 2-0 in Game 4, both come from behind wins for the Bears. League MVP Alexander Giroux totaled four points in the two games, as did former Providence center and AHL assist-leader Keith Aucoin. Game 5 was a back and forth affair with the P-Bruins twice battling from behind to tie Hershey but the Bears scored three third period goals for the series victory with the winner credited to Chris Bourque, the son of Boston Bruins legend Ray Bourque. Michal Neuvirth, a backup goaltender throughout much of the regular season, finished the set with a 4-1 record and 2.30 GAA to Rask's 1-4 mark and 3.25 GAA. Offensively, Penner, who did not miss any of the team's 96 games during the year, shined on the power play for Providence with seven points in the series, including four goals. Giroux, a 60 goal-scorer during the regular season, added four goals and four assists in his team's win, propelling Hershey to the final round against Manitoba.
In a year that featured a substantially different look and feel from the one that preceded it, it is unclear what waits in 2009-10 for the Bruins' top affiliate. As is always the case, there will be trades, players will depart via free agency and a lucky few will make their homes in Boston next season, never to be spotted on the Dunkin' Donuts Center ice again. But, no matter who occupies the crease, leads the team in scoring or mans the blue-line in the future, the 2008-09 Providence Bruins will always be remembered as a team where boys grew into men and youthful exuberance evolved into veteran poise.
To purchase tickets for the 2009-10 season or for more information, call the P-Bruins ticket office at (401) 273-5000 or log on to the team website at providencebruins.com.