Bussi a reliable rookie in Bruins’ net

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📝 by Patrick Williams

Brandon Bussi looks at goaltending quite simply.

“If you are having a not-so-good night,” Bussi asks, “how are you going to find a way to make it work so that you give your team a chance to win?”

Bussi has held up his end of that query, and has rapidly become a fixture in net for the Providence Bruins.

Go back to Nov. 2.

That day, with the P-Bruins on the road preparing to face Utica, the Boston Bruins recalled veteran Keith Kinkaid. A night earlier, Jeremy Swayman had exited Boston’s game in Pittsburgh with an injury, and the NHL club had a trip to Madison Square Garden up next. It was a task for which the veteran Kinkaid had been signed this past summer: help anchor the crease in Providence and be on standby in case you’re needed in Boston.

To replace Kinkaid on the AHL roster, Boston reassigned the 24-year-old Bussi to Providence from their ECHL affiliate in Maine, where he had started his first full pro campaign with a 3-1-0 record, a 2.50 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage. Bussi signed with the Bruins in March following three seasons at Western Michigan University, and began his pro career in Providence last spring before trips to development camp and training camp with Boston.

Bussi began his AHL season backing up Kyle Keyser, who had started his fourth pro season exceptionally well, with a 1.87 GAA and a .931 save percentage in six appearances for Providence. But in the first period of the Bruins’ Nov. 5 game in Springfield, Keyser’s attempted split left him writhing in pain on the ice and unable to continue.

Providence head coach Ryan Mougenel needed Bussi. Now.

“Definitely crazy,” Bussi remembered of that night. “As a goalie, you never want to see that happen. I felt for him. But sometimes in those moments you just need to step up to give your team a chance. Winning is the most important thing.”

Then Springfield greeted Bussi with two goals 59 seconds apart.

But he settled down and stopped the Thunderbirds’ last 20 shots of the game, and the Bruins rallied for a 3-2 win. The next afternoon in Bridgeport, Providence’s offense managed only one goal, but Bussi’s 24 saves gave them a 1-0 shutout victory. From there, he faced at least 39 shots in each of his next four starts, earning back-to-back wins over Charlotte and stealing standings points in extra-time losses to Lehigh Valley (43 saves) and Rochester (42 saves).

In all, Bussi is now 8-1-2 with a league-leading .936 save percentage; he also ranks fourth in the AHL with a 2.16 GAA. He has effectively shared the crease since Kinkaid’s return from Boston on Nov. 16, and has helped to carry the P-Bruins to a 16-4-4-2 mark, second-best in the entire league.

Bussi takes a bottom-line approach to these first six weeks in Providence.

“It’s been a pretty good start,” he said. “The most important thing is winning hockey games.”

Boston got Bussi on a one-year entry-level deal after he set a program record with 26 victories and led Western Michigan to its first-ever win in the NCAA tournament in 2021-22.

“I just thought [Boston] offered a really good opportunity,” Bussi said.

What does Boston have in Bussi, exactly?

Well, he’s big: a wiry 6-foot-5 and 209 pounds. A strong skater. Agile. Put those elements together, and he takes an aggressive approach toward challenging shooters. He trusts in his ability to move, to take those calculated risks. It may not always be pretty. Maybe a bit unconventional. But it works.

Photo: Scott Thomas

The always-forthright Mougenel, a hard-nosed wing back in his playing days, is the first one to profess that he leaves the details of goaltending to the experts. But like Bussi, he’s a bottom-line guy.

“There are some things probably a goalie guru would tell you they probably don’t like about his game, but at the end of the day he wins,” Mougenel stressed.

Coming to the Boston organization has also afforded Bussi to work closely with goaltending development coach Mike Dunham and smooth out some of those edges in his game while also still maintaining a style that feels natural. Like Bussi, Dunham came to the pro game via the college route, and won the Calder Cup in 1995 with the Albany River Rats as part of an AHL development program that churned out prospect after prospect to fuel the New Jersey Devils’ turn-of-the-century dynasty. He understands the growth process for a young AHL netminder.

“[Dunham] is the prototypical goalie coach you want to have,” Bussi stated. “I think his ability to break down the game with you and his knowledge on what to work on or what the key to work on is so high as well as just being that calming voice.

“I’m not someone that believes you win or you lose because of your goalie, but I think there’s a little bit of added responsibility because of the role that we do have in a game. Having [Dunham’s] calmness and ability to break things down and just the feel of everything, it’s just awesome to have. It’s really helped me.”

That short stint in Providence last season prepared Bussi well and he came away with some key lessons about the AHL game, too.

“You need to really battle for everything in regards to traffic, in regards the play happening quicker, the skill,” Bussi outlined. “I think the biggest thing that has led to my personal success and the success of the team has just been my ability to fight and compete, because that’s honestly the most important thing. If you don’t have that, it’s going to be a long night.”

Training camp in Boston was an important step also. There was Patrice Bergeron. Brad Marchand. David Krejci. All winners, and all Providence alumni; the path to Boston often has gone directly through Providence for the past 30 years.

“It was an unbelievable experience,” Bussi recalled. “A lot of those guys have won. They know what it takes to be winners and to succeed and have long careers. To be in the presence of them and see how they do it, how they act, is just big.

“It makes you feel honored that you have the ability to be there. And you also begin to feel like you really deserve it, like you worked hard for this for a long time, and having the moment to kind of feel part of it was very cool.”

Back with the P-Bruins, Bussi has won over Mougenel and the Providence dressing room quickly.

“He’s just a competitive kid,” Mougenel said. “He’s just a fantastic kid where everybody’s rooting for him all the time.”