Postseason hockey in New England right now isn’t limited to the Boston Bruins.
Boston’s farm club at Providence of the American Hockey League is also playoff-bound, and the P-Bruins start their best-of-seven Atlantic Division semifinal series tonight at home at the Dunkin Donuts Center.
The P-Bruins dropped four of their last six games in the regular season, but still finished in second place. Head coach Rob Murray isn’t worried about his team closing the season with a whimper rather than a roar.
“I feel good about the way the team’s playing. I think we’ve played well all year, consistently. At no point did we really go into the tank,” said the first-year head coach. “Any time we had a good game, I always felt we bounced back with a really good game. Whether we won or not the next night, we were always a good, resilient club. … It was a compliment to our team. And that will probably carry over and bode well for us in the playoffs.”
Resilience typically comes in handy in the playoffs, where one little play or mistake can turn a series. Murray knows there are two key areas his club needs to focus in order to keep this series from getting around from it.
“That’s a team that obviously — not to downplay a guy like (Marek) Zagrapan or (Felix) Schutz and their second and third lines – but obviously their top line with (Mathieu) Darche, (Tim) Kennedy and (Nate) Gerbe, they’re as good a line as you’re going to find in the whole AHL,” Murray said. “And they can score and they’re tenacious on the puck. Both Kennedy and Gerbe are tireless workers and Darche, he’s a proven goal-scorer, got great hands and a great sense for the game. These are guys that we have to key on and make sure we keep them off the board.
“We’ve got to play a disciplined game,” he continued. “They’ve got a great power play that’s done very well against us throughout the season. So our discipline and our ability to stay out of the penalty box is going go a long way also.”
Providence will benefit from the return of forwards Vladimir Sobotka, assigned back last night, and Mikko Lehtonen from a brief stint with Boston. Lehtonen led the P-Bruins with 28 goals. Meanwhile, the P-Bruins’ once-depleted blue-line corps now looks more like it was supposed to look with the return to health of Ryan Stokes and Andrew Bodnarchuk to join Johnny Boychuk and Jeff Penner. Stokes played in the last four games of the season and posted 1-1-2 totals and a plus-3 rating. With just 20 games on his ledger in the regular season, Stokes should be raring to go when the puck drops tonight.
“You didn’t realize how much we possibly missed him. You just get that physical presence, a veteran presence and he’s a guy that, if anybody’s fresh, it’s him,” Murray said.
The rest of the P-Bruins’ players have been through the battles. But Boychuk has been a force all year and the league-leader in goals by a defenseman. Plus Lehtonen, Brad Marchand and Zach Hamill have all enjoyed a great first pro year of development. You add to that goaltender Tuukka Rask, who had a full AHL season to just focus on getting better (with just one week spent in Boston), and you might have the right mix to cook up a first-round playoff win and a lengthy postseason run.