by Patrick Williams
The Providence Bruins chose to not go quietly into the summer.
Matched against the powerhouse Lehigh Valley Phantoms in a best-of-five first-round series, Providence was going to face a difficult start to the Calder Cup Playoffs. For that matter, in an Eastern Conference field featuring the likes of the Phantoms, Charlotte Checkers, Syracuse Crunch, and Toronto Marlies, there is no easy route out for any team.
However, the AHL affiliate of the Boston Bruins split the first two games at home, taking a Game 2 decision from the Atlantic Division regular-season champion and setting up an opportunity to win the series on the road.
But in going into Lehigh Valley, the P-Bruins faced a very tall order against the most dominant home-ice outfit in the AHL. The Phantoms posted an AHL-best 27-6-3-2 home mark at PPL Center that included a 17-1-1-1 run through their final 20 home dates.
It went even worse in Game 3 for rookie head coach Jay Leach’s team. Lehigh Valley blitzed Providence early, and only goaltender Jordan Binnington’s outstanding play prevented a first-period blow-out. As it was, the Phantoms still built a 3-0 lead by 2:06 of the second period in cruising to a 4-1 win.
The 24-year-old Binnington had taken over the Providence net from Zane McIntyre after a Game 1 loss. On loan to Providence from the St. Louis Blues after three seasons with the Chicago Wolves, Binnington had gone 17-9-1 in 28 regular-season games. He paired that record with a 2.05 goals-against average (second-best in the AHL) and a .926 save percentage (fourth-best in the league).
Game 4? An elimination game?
That featured an even worse first 20 minutes for the P-Bruins. Lehigh Valley’s offense, which placed second in the regular season at 3.42 goals per game, continued to bombard Providence. Three Phantoms goals in the opening 16:26 ended Binnington’s night after the first period as Leach chose to re-install McIntyre.
“Our guys had a choice, let’s be honest,” Leach said of the 3-0 first-intermission hole in an elimination game. “It was the second night in a row having a tough first period.
“We went in the room. We had a choice, and we could have gone in one direction or another.”
The answer to that choice began to reveal itself to Leach. Providence had started to control play in the second period before a goal late in the second period from captain Tommy Cross rewarded the P-Bruins for that effort.
Leach’s players continued to chip away through the third period. Then came goals from Anton Blidh and Austin Czarnik 2:59 apart. With 5:01 to go in regulation, Providence left Lehigh Valley facing the possibility of going to a deciding Game 5.
Providence did not let up in overtime, pelting Phantoms goaltender Alex Lyon with multiple point-blank chances late into Saturday night inside a building growing increasingly nervous. After that first period, Providence had gone on a 46-13 run in shots.
But it all came to a halt when Maxim Lamarche slipped a poor-angle shot from deep in the left corner past McIntyre with 1:24 remaining in overtime. Providence had outshot Lehigh Valley in overtime, 14-3, before Lamarche ended the P-Bruins’ season. It took a 49-save performance from Lyon to finally finish off Providence.
“They took charge after that first period and decided that this was not going to be the way that they were going to go out.”
This season continued a tradition of winning hockey for the AHL’s longest-running NHL-AHL affiliation, a relationship with Boston that dates to 1992. Providence has reached the Calder Cup Playoffs six consecutive seasons and put up at least 40 victories in each of those years, including a 45-26-3-2 record in 2017-18. In all six of those seasons, they have managed at least 91 points.
Like so many successful affiliations, Providence has blended development within a winning culture.
That success is found behind the home bench at TD Garden. Boston head coach Bruce Cassidy worked eight seasons in Providence – five of them as a head coach – before advancing to Boston. Working alongside Cassidy as an assistant coach on the Boston staff is Kevin Dean, who took Providence to the Eastern Conference final last season.
Leach, a tough, physical blue-liner during his playing days, has long understood the Providence tradition. After bouncing between several stops early in his pro career, Leach found a home in Providence in 2004-05 on a roster that featured the likes of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Boyes along with Brent Thompson, who is now the head coach of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
That season, Providence advanced to the Eastern Conference final against the Phantoms, who played out of Philadelphia. Leading the P-Bruins that season was Scott Gordon, who is now in the same position with Lehigh Valley.
Gordon praised his former Providence captain after Game 4.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Gordon said. “He’s a bright guy, a very focused guy. Their team is in good hands.”
While it would not be realistic to expect Providence to deliver another haul like this season to Boston, a number of faces from this season’s AHL roster are candidates for eventual duty in Boston.
“I’d like to think that we got the most out of a lot of guys,” Leach said of this season. “Hopefully we take out that we reached the playoffs with [an ever-changing] group. Hopefully we can build that.
“Guys on this team understand that this is where we develop to get [them] to the next level, whether that’s next year or the following year or the following year after that. It’s really our goal, to continue to get these guys better and better, so that when there is an opening in Boston, they’re ready for it.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.