1999 Providence Bruins: One of the AHL’s Best Teams Ever

Many long time Providence Bruins fans have a feeling they have not had in years. The 2012-13 American Hockey League (AHL) Playoffs start tonight, April 26th, with the team coming off of a regular season in which they were awarded the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy for garnering the most points in the league (50-21-5, 105 points). Consequently, they are viewed as one of the front runners for the Calder Cup this spring; all of this following the 2011-2012 season, in which they did not even make the playoffs.

1999 Providence Bruins: One the AHL's Best Teams Ever
Dunkin Donuts Center formerly known as the Providence Civic Center (photo credit: Andy Riter/cc)

If this sounds somewhat familiar, it should. The 1998-99 P-Bruins won the regular season title and ultimately the Calder Cup, following a year in which they had the worst record in the entire AHL. Although Providence has had numerous deep post season runs since 1999 and were regular season champions in 2008, no team has yet to live up to the standard and expectations left by the 1999 squad. With Calder Cup fever starting to crank up in Rhode Island and southeast Massachusetts, now is a better time than ever to reflect on that Calder Cup run.

Rebuilding Providence  

Coming off of the 1997-98 season where the Providence Bruins unexpectedly stumbled to a 19-49-7 (50 pts) record, landing them in last place in the entire league, the team needed to make changes. The Bruins organization was in the middle of one of it’s worst periods in team history since the early 1960’s. Fans were restless and while Boston would continue to disappoint, some pivotal moves were made to revamp Providence for their upcoming season.

On July 9th, 1998 head coach Tom McVie, an individual with years of coaching experience in the National Hockey League (NHL), World Hockey Association, AHL, and Central Hockey League was fired. Assistant coach, Rod Langway, a long time veteran NHL defenseman, was relieved from coaching duties as well. Only six days later, former Providence Bruins defenseman, captain, and player-assistant coach, Peter Laviolette was hired as the new head coach.

Peter Laviolette (Icon SMI)
Peter Laviolette currently coaches the Philadelphia Flyers and coached the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup. (Icon SMI)

Laviolette, who only had year of head coaching experience at this point, albeit quite a successful one with the ECHL Wheeling Nailers, also had a reputation of being a strong leader as a player. This was exemplified by the fact that he was named team captain of the International Hockey League’s (IHL) 1988-89 Colorado Rangers, the AHL’s 1991-92 Binghamton Rangers, and the 1994 US Olympic team.

Then Boston Bruins general manager Harry Sinden likely made the move to replace McVie with Laviolette, because of the energy he could bring as a young coach trying to make a name for himself on a larger stage than the ECHL. McVie moved to a scouting role in the organization, which he continues to hold to this day.

Roster Overhaul

Significant changes were made to the forward lines and defensive pairings through a myriad of transactions with other teams and promotions to Boston. The only portion of the team that remained the same was the goaltending duo of starter John Grahame and back up Jim Carey, who was later traded to the St. Louis Blues organization near the end of the season.

The few skaters returning from the previous season were centermen Randy Robitaille and Joel Prpic, wingers Antti Laaksonen, Aaron Downey, and Jay Henderson. Both Robitaille and Laaksonen would play much larger roles for Providence in the upcoming season for the team. Defensemen Elias Abrahamsson and Mattias Timander were the only returning defensemen from the previous season. Timander permanently left for Boston halfway through the season and Abrahamsson played in only 4 games the playoffs.

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Landon Wilson and Cameron Mann, two players who are very familiar to late 90s Bruins fans, were promoted to Boston for a majority of the 1998-99 season. They returned to Providence after Boston was eliminated from the NHL playoffs, to enhance the team’s offense during the Calder Cup run.

New to the team were centers Andre Savage, fresh out of college from Michigan Tech, and Marquis Mathieu who played under tutelage of Peter Laviolette for the Wheeling Nailers in 1997-98. Winger Jeremy Brown played for the Nailers the previous season as well until being traded to Providence at the very end of the year, making him essentially a new player as well. Eric Nikalus, new from the IHL’s Orlando Solar Bears, joined the new core of forwards.

Winger Peter Ferraro was traded to the Bruins organization from the Hartford Wolfpack, but he played a majority of the 98-99 season in Boston, until joining Providence for the playoff run.

The most significant alteration to Providence was their defense core, in which the top six were completely replaced with minor league and NHL veterans. Puck moving defensemen Brandon Smith of the Adirondack Red Wings,  10 year minor league veterans Terry Virtue and Steve Bancroft, and veteran New York Islanders defenseman Dennis Vaske joined the team. Jonathan Aitken, a young defenseman  fresh out of Major Junior hockey joined the team as well.

The Providence Bruins Journey to the 1999 Calder Cup

Game by game regular season results:

A majority of their 16 regulation losses came within the first couple months of the season, which makes sense, considering the huge turnover in coaching and player personnel. Even so, as this team was developing it’s chemistry, they still achieved a 16-10-1-2 record by December 18th, 1998.

It was on December 23rd, 1998 that the team found another level of excellence where they started an impressive 32-3-2-1 run. The P-Bruins outscored opponents 156 to 93 in that span.

Below is a highlight of the Providence Bruins incredible ability to win games during that stretch, despite being down 3 goals in the third period.

Game Highlights versus Hartford Wolfpack 2/28/1999:

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Randy Robitaille and Andre Savage led the team’s offense with (28 goals, 74 assists) and (27 goals, 42 assists) respectively. Brandon Smith (+36) and Terry Virtue (+34) led the defense with a combination of shut down play in the defensive zone and with their knack of injecting offense in to the game with fast puck transition.

Near the end of the season, the Providence Bruins acquired defenseman Jason McBain from the IHL’s Las Vegas Thunder, center John Spoltore  from the ECHL’s  Louisiana IceGators, and signed winger Steven King. These transactions would turn out to be important acquisitions as both Spoltore and King eventually scored key goals during the playoffs.

By the end of the regular season, the Providence Bruins set an AHL record for their record of 56 wins, 16 losses, 4 ties, and 4 overtime losses. The scored 110 more goals and allowed 78 fewer goals against from the previous season.

1999 Calder Cup Playoffs

Providence’s first round opponent in a best of five series was the Worcester IceCats. The Bruins won the series with relative ease winning game one 4-1 and game two 3-1 at home. Worcester fought off the sweep with a 5-3 win in game three, but Providence ultimately took the series with a 6-3 win in game four.

In the second round, the P-Bruins faced the Hartford Wolfpack. Although this series was a sweep, it did not feel like one. Game one ended 5-4 in double overtime from a Spoltore goal. He went on to score the game winner in the next two games that ended 5-3 and 5-4 in overtime. Game four was a tight checking affair that ended as a 2-1 victory.

The Providence Bruins then faced the Fredericton Canadiens in the eastern conference finals.  The Bruins appeared to be well on their way to sweeping after winning the first two games 6-3, and the third game 5-3 as the away team. Fredericton proceeded to win the next two games 4-1 and 4-0 with great goaltending from Jose Theodore. Just as the series appeared to be swinging back in the Canadiens direction, Providence returned home and won 6-1.

The Calder Cup final presented the Bruins with the challenge of defeating the Rochester Americans. Providence won the first two games at home, 4-2 and 6-0. Game three went on to become a very memorable point in the series and the entire playoff run. The game went in to overtime tied 2-2 and eventually ended up reaching the third overtime:

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One might say that Steven King frightened the crowd with his goal in triple overtime.

Rochester managed to avoid the sweep, by winning game four 4-2.

Game 5 brought the series back to a sold out Providence Civic Center:

(Although the video is rather unclear, it captures the energy from that night, which rivals that of an NHL rink.)

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The Providence Bruins won the Calder Cup with a convincing 5-1 rout of Rochester. Randy Robitaille won the Les Cunningham Award as the most valuable player (MPV) for the overall season, Peter Ferraro won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs, and Peter Laviolette won the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award, for coach of the year.

The Calder Cup Championship Banner Ceremony:

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During this memorable playoff run, many die hard Boston Bruins fans embraced this team as their #1. Some hoped it was a sign of the Bruins organization’s growing depth and as a sign of good things to come in Boston. Although this was not the case, this team was certainly a launching point for Peter Laviolette’s NHL coaching career and for numerous players who went on to take depth roles for numerous NHL teams.

This team is still fondly remembered and held in high esteem by long time Providence Bruins season ticket holders and hardcore fans. The comparisons run rampant between the sudden regular season success of the 2013 team and 1999 team. As of this writing, only the hockey gods know whether or not the 2013 Providence Bruins will follow through with a memorable second act in this year’s Calder Cup playoffs.