Bruins getting back to normal heading into 2022

Photo: Providence Bruins

📝 by Patrick Williams

Life feels a little more normal for the Providence Bruins as 2022 begins.

Back on home ice at Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Sunday afternoon for the first time in three weeks, the P-Bruins dealt the Springfield Thunderbirds a 7-1 loss. That victory, coupled with shutting out the Hartford Wolf Pack 4-0 on New Year’s Eve, capped a successful weekend for Providence after enduring a chaotic December.

“It’s amazing when you’re away from it how much you miss it,” Providence head coach Ryan Mougenel said of being back home. “The fans, even seeing some familiar faces, it builds that little bit of comfort for the players. And yeah, I think it showed, right?

“They feel comfortable in this building. It has just a real good energy, and it translates. It’s just a good feeling…to come into a rink filled with some warm bodies.”

Like most hockey teams around the world in recent weeks, the Bruins have had a trying time. They first had to deal with COVID-19 protocols hitting the roster in late November. Then after going 13 days without a game because of postponements, Providence had to play a three-in-three weekend Dec. 10-12. Two games later, league protocols impacting opponents kept the team off the American Hockey League schedule for another 12 days.

The AHL season is not at its halfway point yet, but the P-Bruins have long been a team that has thrived after the New Year. Providence also has a long tradition of success-by-committee, and on both counts Sunday felt something like that again.

Goals 1:51 apart late in the first period from Eduards Tralmaks and Alex-Olivier Voyer put the Thunderbirds in a 2-0 hole. Those goals came from two undrafted players who have had to go to the club’s ECHL affiliate in Maine for brief stints this season.

Then an old reliable, Cameron Hughes, pounced 41 ticks into the second period before Joona Koppanen added to his two-goal, one-assist afternoon with a goal at 5:44 that broke open the game. Providence even produced two shorthanded goals in the third period on strikes from Hughes and Koppanen, giving the team five this season.

With Troy Grosenick back in regular action and stopping 43 of 44 shots in the victories against Hartford and Springfield, the Bruins are continuing a long history of stout goaltending. An offseason signing, Grosenick won the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award with the San Jose Barracuda as the AHL’s top goaltender in 2016-17 and followed up in 2019-20 by teaming up with Connor Ingram to take the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award as the Milwaukee Admirals allowed the fewest goals per game in the league that season. This season in Providence, he has gone 6-1-0 with a 1.92 goals-against average (fourth-best in the AHL) and .926 save percentage (seventh).

Add it up, and the mix has Mougenel optimistic about a team that has won seven of its last 10.

“As a group, as a staff, I’m happy with where we are,” Mougenel said, “and the guys just kind of seem to find a way. So going through the whole COVID situation, the way we went about it I think has been the biggest difference. We’ve just got very mature guys.”

Sunday’s win took Providence’s record to 13-8-3-1 going into week that will include a Wednesday trip to see the Bridgeport Islanders followed by back-to-back home games against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on the weekend. With six of their next eight games in downtown Providence, January will be a month with an opportunity to improve on a 6-5-1-0 home mark this season.

Top forward Oskar Steen received another recall to Boston on Sunday in time for a 5-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings, and the recent roster upheaval has forced Mougenel, a first-year AHL head coach, to try players in different roles. Voyer, Tralmaks, and Justin Brazeau have performed capably, and Koppanen’s three-point game on Sunday came after having totaled four points in his first 20 games this season. A line with Tralmaks, Koppanen, and Brazeau gave the Thunderbirds trouble all afternoon.

“As somebody responsible for putting guys in all situations, I’ve got to do a better job of finding those offensive spots for some of those guys like Koppanen,” said Mougenel, a very self-demanding sort who frequently expresses aloud areas in which he wishes to improve himself.

“I’ve just got to do a better job of using them in those offensive situations. But that line was outstanding. I thought Eddie Tralmaks owns the puck below the goal line, and Justin Brazeau has been everything as advertised, everything I kind of knew about him. There [are] things that are growing in his game, and he’s still a really young pro. So there’s a lot of upside there.

“Those guys have gotten some opportunity, and they’ve made the most of it, right? That’s something to be said about those guys, too. Because sometimes we get opportunities, and we don’t make the most of [them]. Like in the NHL, [Steen] went up [and] made the most of his opportunity. That’s kudos to him.”

With a leadership base that features Hughes, a two-time captain with Hartford and the Rochester Americans in Steven Fogarty, Aaron Ness, Urho Vaakanainen, and more, last week the P-Bruins also were able to name defenseman Josiah Didier the 26th captain in the club’s long, successful history.

“I’ve had the fortune of spending a lot of time with [Didier],” Mougenel said of the selection. “There wasn’t a time when we didn’t come into the office and [we would be] like, ‘Man, this guy is out of this world as a player and as a kid.’

“Just everything about him is a special. I think the one thing about [Didier] for me is he just makes you a better coach, makes you a better person. He’s as high-quality as any player I’ve been around, for sure.”