PROVIDENCE — Head coach Rob Murray admits that when he had to attend a meet-and-greet with Providence Bruins season ticket holder’s a couple weeks ago, he went in wary of what he would encounter.
After all, despite some signs of improvement, Boston’s AHL farm club had been holding up the entire Atlantic Division from the bottom almost all season.
“I was really worried about some of the comments I was sure I was going to get,” Murray recalled tonight.
But Murray’s interactions with the most-loyal supporters of his club were all positive, he says, and now that faith is being rewarded. Providence ran its current stretch of strong play to seven wins in eight games tonight with a 4-2 win over might Portland. Since losing on New Year’s Day, the P-Bruins are 9-3-1, and their now nipping at fourth-place Worcester’s toes to get into playoff position.
Most impressive, Providence has made up ground by beating some of the iron of the AHL, including division-leading Manchester and now the Pirates, who dropped to second after this evening’s action.
“I think the way that we’re playing and the way that our guys are contributing right now, I feel that we’re a pretty good team. I couldn’t say that about a month ago,” said Murray. “We had our struggles and we battled hard, the guys worked their asses off. But we had an opportunity to do really do some teaching and change a little of our systems – not hugely, but enough that since then we’ve been able to have some success.”
With just one game left before the All-Star break, the P-Bruins have at least salvaged their season and proven that there’s more to their roster than just young, raw talent. As with any major turnaround, there have been several factors in Providence’s resurgence, starting with the tweaks Murray and assistant coach Bruce Cassidy made to the system.
The Jan. 7 return of last year’s captain Trent Whitfield from injury certainly helped. Whitfield notched a goal and two assists against the Pirates to run his season’s totals to two goals and five assists. Colby Cohen, acquired early in the season from the Colorado organization, finally got healthy to help on the back end. And Zach Hamill started to show the fruits of his labor by playing like the No. 1 center he was supposed to be when the season started.
Hamill helped set up, along with defenseman Jeff Penner, Jordan Caron’s game-winning goal at 7:48 of the third period. The Bruins’ 2007 first-round pick now has 12 points in 14 January games, and has allowed Joe Colborne to settle into a second-line role between fellow ’08 draft picks Max Sauve and Jamie Arniel. Hamill has gotten comfortable with Caron and veteran Jeremy Reich on his wings.
The Providence change in fortunes started with consecutive wins over Bridgeport and Manchester, and then even an overtime loss to powerful Wilkes-Barre/Scranton told the P-Bruins they could play with the best there is.
“Obviously, confidence is such a huge thing,” said Hamill, whose 27 points are two behind Arniel for the team lead. “You win a couple games in a row and we’re beating some pretty good teams. There’s no real answer, I don’t think, we’re just trying to take it one game a time.”
The confidence showed against the Pirates, who had beaten Providence four out of five times already this season. Although I’d like to see defenseman Matt Bartkowski take fewer risks and Colborne get his nose a little dirtier in the corners, for one evening at least every P-Bruins player played his role perfectly. Kirk MacDonald scored a goal by darting toward the net to retrieve a rebound of a Whitfield shot. Goaltender Nolan Schaefer made 28 saves. And the defense corps kept the breakouts simple and the Portland shots to the outside. Jeff Penner was at his positional best most of the night.
A couple more months like the season’s first few, and the fans might’ve turned on Murray and the P-Bruins. Instead, they’re in for a wild ride to the finish, with a playoff berth a strong possibility at its conclusion.