As the calendar hit 2016, the Providence Bruins found themselves one spot from the bottom of the Atlantic Division with a 12-15-5-1 record. After an incredible run to start the New Year saw them go 16 games without a regulation loss (12-0-3-1), the AHL Bruins are now firmly in the playoff race in fourth place with 24 games left on their schedule .
It is not hard to see why the Providence got off to a slow start to the 2015-16 season.
Star forward Seth Griffith was lost to a knee injury in preseason action with the parent Boston Bruins that kept him out of action until October 23rd. Goaltender Malcolm Subban was shaking off an ailment at the start of the season as well, though he battled through it before just recently taking a puck to his throat and fracturing his larynx. Alexander Khokhlachev, another scoring forward with a lot of skill, had surgery on an injured finger in early November that caused him to miss nearly a month’s worth of games.
“I think that only made us better as a team as a whole,” Griffith said of the team’s injury woes earlier this season. “You got guys that have got to step up in key situations like that, so I think we handled ourselves pretty well, and I think that’s one of the main reasons why this past month and a half we’ve been so consistent.”
Combine the injuries to key players with an abundance of rookies, and it was a recipe for a learning curve for a lot of players in the early part of the season.
“In the beginning of the year we had a lot of first-year guys, and it has taken some time for them to figure it out,” Khokhlachev said of his team’s early struggles. “I think everybody knows their role on the team [now]. Every month we have played better, and we are playing great hockey right now.”
Griffith leading the way
Once the team got healthy and regained their chemistry, the Bruins started to get into a groove. Not surprisingly, it was led by a pair of third-year forwards who also represented the team at the 2016 AHL All-Star Classic in Syracuse at the beginning of February.
No one has been scoring as much as Seth Griffith has this season. Since returning from his early-season knee injury, Griffith is second in league scoring with 60 points (19 goals, 41 assists) despite playing just 46 games – eight less than Hershey’s Chris Bourque (24 goals, 37 assists).
“Obviously, it was really tough getting injured in the first game of the preseason, but I feel like I’m in the shape that I actually came into to camp with and hoping to be,” Griffith recalled. “I feel a lot better on the ice, a lot stronger. I’m comfortable with my knee and stuff like that. It’s back to 100%, so I just have to focus on playing.”
Once December hit, Griffith caught fire. He has 50 points (15 goals, 35 assists) in his last 33 games and is eyeing a return to the NHL with Boston where he has appeared in 32 career NHL contests. Like most AHL scorers, Griffith knows he needs to play a more two-way style if he wants to stick full time in the NHL.
“Just be a little bit more consistent,” Griffith said of what he’s working on while in the AHL. “Sometimes I worry a little bit too much about offense and get away from my D-zone game a little bit. If I could find a happy medium between the two, it will make me a better player and obviously a more consistent player in the D-zone.”
Undrafted rookies Vatrano and Czarnik making a difference
Undrafted rookie forward Frank Vatrano out of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst has taken the hockey world by storm this season, beginning in October when he tallied 10 goals in his first eight games of the season. It wasn’t long before he was called up to Boston and made his NHL debut, and he continued to score there with six goals in his first 30 NHL games before returning to Providence in late January.
Now back in the AHL, Vatrano is racking up goals with regularity again with 15 tallies in his last 15 games while also posting a recent 12-game scoring streak. While undersized at 5’9”, Vatrano is making some serious strides in his first full season of hockey at the professional level.
Another undrafted and undersized forward making an impact with Providence this season is former Miami University star Austin Czarnik, who has put up 42 points (15 goals, 27 assists) in 47 games this season with the AHL Bruins, placing him fifth in AHL rookie scoring so far this season.
“A lot of guys have come from college and they’re still rookies, but some of them are older than me so it’s weird,” Griffith said of his rookie teammates, speaking very highly of their contribution to the team’s success. “I think going from college, it’s more that age, that AHL style of game, than coming from juniors. It makes it a little easier for some guys. If you saw them, you wouldn’t think we had that many rookies on our team. I think that they’re the key to why we’re doing so well.”
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