They may not have a commanding lead at the top of the Atlantic Division, but it’s a winning record nonetheless, as the Providence Bruins have another strong, hardworking team on the ice this season. The P Bruins out-shoot their opponents more often than not, and they are among the top teams in the league both on the power play and the penalty kill. Rob Murray, in his first season as the team’s head coach, is satisfied with the direction the team is headed, but pointed to a few areas that would make them that much stronger.
“I think we probably struggled a little bit with our consistency, as far as game in and game out, but it’s something we’re getting better at,” said Murray. “We’ve probably got to get more scoring throughout our lineup — on any given night we’re getting the majority of scoring on the top line, so it’s something that we could probably do better at and get more of throughout the lineup.”
For the most part, Providence has been able to keep the pressure off their goaltenders by limiting quality scoring opportunities. Tuukka Rask, who is playing in his second pro season in North America, has been making the majority of starts. Rask had been called up to Boston as a rookie in 2007-08 after Manny Fernandez was injured, but had very little playing time while there. The result was a slow start in Providence. This season has been a different story, as Rask has benefited from consistent playing time.
“Tuukka has found a little bit of a groove. Right now he’s playing strong and I’ve been happy with him as far as that goes,” Murray said.
The only change in net this season is rookie Kevin Regan, who wrapped up a strong college career with the University of New Hampshire last season.
“Kevin hasn’t really gotten the chance to play on a regular basis but we’re positive on him and we feel comfortable when he’s called upon to play games.”
Recent acquisition Johnny Boychuk is the top scoring defenseman for Providence, with Matt Lashoff next in line, however, Lashoff is currently with the team in Boston. Adam McQuaid, now in his second pro season, continues to be a strong physical presence. Providence also has a pair of talented rookies on defense with Jeff Penner and Andrew Bodnarchuk. Both are smaller puck moving defensemen, who compete hard and continue to improve.
“I think Jeff came out of training camp and they were really pleasantly surprised with him up in Boston. He’s playing the top power play right now with Johnny Boychuk and he’s effective with that,” said Murray.
About Bodnarchuk, he added, “I think Andrew’s game has really improved. He struggled the beginning of the season, we actually we sat him out a game and just for him to back and watch the game. He’s playing with a lot more confidence. I think his decisions with the puck have improved."
Martins Karsums is the top goal scorer for Providence, and is second in total points behind Martin St. Pierre. After missing considerable time due to injury in his rookie year, Karsums really took off in the 2007-08 season, and appears to have picked up where he left off. His performance has earned him a brief trip to Boston, and he should be a top candidate should a call-up be necessary again.
“Marty has become a real complete player," Murray said. "I think he’s quicker than he was two years ago, even the beginning of last season. He’s dependable defensively, he’s scoring, he hits a ton — he’s one of our most physical players, probably one of our most hardworking players, so his game has come to a point now where he’s well-rounded and deserving of the call-up he got.”
While they don’t have the same veteran presence that they’ve had in recent seasons, players like Peter Schaefer bring considerable pro experience, while Jeremy Reich has taken over the role of team captain. Wacey Rabbit has been a constant on the fourth line, while killing penalties and playing on other lines as needed. Byron Bitz has also provided leadership in his second pro season, while bringing a gritty, physical game.
This year’s rookie class is sizable, most of them on offense, but one that Murray points to as a pleasant surprise is Brad Marchand. Marchand, who was a teammate of fellow P Bruin Andrew Bodnarchuk in his final junior season, has, for the most part, transitioned well to the pro game.
“One of the things coming out of junior that they talked about was the fact that he didn’t distribute the puck well, that he kind of played by himself all the time," Murray said. "There’s a certain amount of that, but he’s a dynamic player when he does have the puck and for me, I haven’t had many issues with it. On occasion I’ve got to talk to him within a game on a certain shift, but other than that, he uses the players around him, he’s tenacious on the puck and he’s a real hard worker. He’s a guy that we look to be a big part of this team and I’ve been really pleased with him, his attitude’s been great. He’s not an issue off the ice at all, and he’s been a great kid for me.”
Zach Hamill got a late start in his rookie season because of injury which has slowed his progress. The good news is that he has continued to improve and gain more confidence.
“Zach is getting better," Murray said. "I don’t think he’s where he needs to be, but I think it did take its toll on him not playing for the first month of the season. He’s on his way, put it that way, but I think he can be better and contribute more and real soon he’ll be the player that we expect and where we need him to be."
Rookies Jordan Knackstedt, Levi Nelson, Ned Lukacevic, Matt Marquardt, and Mikko Lehtonen, have all worked to find consistency and earn ice time, but none have had what you would call an outstanding debut. They are working hard and making progress, however, and Coach Murray describes them all as being attentive and able to absorb what they’re taught. Mikko Lehtonen is in his first season in North America.
“Mikko was doing very well, and then he hurt himself. He was probably out for a week or a week and a half, then he came back and kind of slipped back to a few bad habits. Now he’s gotten better again — he’s worked his way back in.”