To borrow a phrase from the title of a podcast (that you should totally check out), Trouble’s a Bruin in Providence. Since December 29th, the AHL affiliate of the Boston Bruins have dropped 6 of their last 7 games, also squeaking out 2 points in overtime/shootout losses (Dec. 30th vs. Belleville & Jan. 13th vs. Bridgeport). While I’m usually singing the praises of first-year head coach Jay Leach’s squad, this skid has raised some speculation.
Around the time this stretch of games commenced, the NHL Bruins had sent down Anders Bjork, Matt Beleskey, and Peter Cehlarik. It’s no stretch to imagine there was some mandate from Sweeney to the AAA affiliate to give all three playing time. Bjork and Beleskey needed in-game ice time to regain confidence, while Cehlarik, on the verge of his breakout in the show, was injured on a west-coast road trip. Adding unfamiliar faces (Cehlarik notwithstanding) can interfere with the chemistry of any team. Except in this case it didn’t: Bjork and Cehlarik are both scoring at or above a point-per-game pace since reassignment, and while he’s no Wayne Gretzky, Matt Beleskey has hit twine on several occasions or chipped in with a timely assist.
The injury bug has spared Providence lately as well. Aside from injuries to Matt Beleskey and journeyman blueliner Chris Breen, the team has been healthy. Providence’s personnel mindset is similar to the NFL Patriots: “Next Man Up”. It works well for them. Injuries aren’t the root of the skid.
It’s too easy to blame goaltending when there’s a skid, and we won’t even touch that. If you read my blog with regularity, you’ve seen my concerns between the pipes. No need to pile on Binnigton or McIntyre here.
While this year’s iteration of the powerplay (13% conversion, 28th in the league) is far removed from the mighty 2015-16 powerplay (22.6% conversion, 1st in the league), lately the P-Bruins powerplay has managed a slight resurgence. In this skid, they have managed 3 powerplay goals in 7 games, which might be a season record for them. Unfortunately, they have given up a powerplay goal and even worse, a shorthanded goal against. In the end, those statistics mostly balance out to the point we can agree special teams aren’t the definitive cause of this losing streak.
Providence is not for lack of talent, either. Center Austin Czarnik is headed to the All-star game. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine Peter Cehlarik would be going as well if he had spent more time scoring in Providence at his torrid pace. JFK and Senyshyn are no slouches in the point category, while fellow rookie Ryan Fitzgerald has chipped in with several gritty goals at critical moments and timely assists. There is no lack of talent to the farm club of Boston.
This leaves two possibilities, and instead of one being the clear-cut answer, it seems to be a hybrid of both. Factually speaking, the Bruins have been a victim of a favorable schedule for the first half of their season. Since October, they have only played 4 3-in-3 weekends where they play Friday – Sunday with no break in between; further, they had only played in one consecutive 3-in-3 in early December. However, this isn’t a complete explanation, as during those early 3-in-3s, the Bruins earned 12/12 possible points.
The best possible explanation has no factual basis, but happens to every team in sports, including the best. No team is immune to losing a string of games in a short period of time. In the Bruins case, perhaps teams have learned the Providence squad doesn’t fare well against the neutral zone trap and have gummed up the interior passing lanes. It happens to everybody, no matter how good, or bad your squad is.
Despite Providence outshooting opponents regularly, controlling the faceoffs, and activating their D effectively (see: Jakub Zboril), the puck is not going in the net for the P-Bruins. Atlantic powerhouse Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins went through a similar hiccup earlier in their season. Teams don’t have to playing poorly, or even average to experience a slump, and while they’re in a slump, teams aren’t as bad as they appear to be. Even while the team is driving season ticket holders a touch mad, you have to trust the way the team is playing. The record the P-Bruins amassed before the slump is testament to. Jay Leach’s coaching, and the talents of the team finding ways to win, even in games they were down a goal or two.
A good portion of this team are first and second year professionals who need to learn how to handle adversity, and this slump is a great opportunity for that. How they come out in the next few games will tell you a lot about their character.