The Providence Bruins have experienced quite a run of success since the franchise moved from Portland, Maine, to Rhode Island for the 1992-93 season. In 26 seasons of hockey, the Bruins have only finished below a .500 winning percentage six times, missing the playoffs in only five seasons.
The franchise captured a Calder Cup in 1998-99, finishing the season with an astounding 56-16-4-4 record. Only one other team in Providence history came close to that mark, the 2007-08 team cruised through the regular season with a league-best 55-18-3-4 record. Unfortunately, the 2007-08 P-Bruins won’t be remembered for a heart-stopping playoff run. How did it go wrong? What minor-league roster quirks and factors led to the dominant team’s demise? Here’s an end of summer trip down memory lane.
P-Bruins Tested Early
The 2007-08 P-Bruins quickly established themselves as one the league’s top teams, despite fighting an uphill battle from the start. The Dunkin Donuts Center was in the middle of a three-year renovation plan that most notably added 20 luxury boxes. As part of that plan, the P-Bruins were forced to play their first 10 games of the season on the road.
To say the team quickly bonded would be an understatement, Providence was already 8-1-1-0 before the Nov. 14 home opener against the Portland Pirates. The stretch included Tuukka Rask’s debut as a pro in North America, posting a 6-1-0 record with a 2.01 goals against average and .893 save percentage. While his numbers weren’t stellar, he was able to adjust to life in North America playing behind the AHL’s second-highest scoring team, averaging 3.5 goals per game.
The offense wasn’t exactly paced by household names to NHL fans. Pascal Pelletier had a career-year with 37 goals. The undrafted Pelletier found some magic playing alongside Bruins second-round pick Martins Karsums. The duo finished atop the scoring leaderboard on the 2007-08 Bruins.
To remain consistent enough to finish with the league’s best record in the AHL, the unpredictable roster fluctuation has to go in your favor. The Bruins received a mid-season boost when a young David Krejci was sent down to join the squad. The Czech forward paced the offense, proving to the organization the lower level was no longer competition for him. While Krejci averaged over a point per game, the team won 19 of 25 games during his stint from mid-November to the end of December.
In that dominant 25 game stretch, the Bruins offense tallied five goals or more six times. Aside from the Krejci stint, the team enjoyed a pretty stable roster up front throughout the course of the season. Pelletier, Karsums, veteran Jeff Hoggan, Matt Hendricks, and captain Nate Thompson were the mainstays that chipped in at forward.
Looking back at the blueliners, once again there wasn’t one high-profile future NHL-er leading the way. Brett Skinner ad Sean Curry were players who spent a majority of their careers in the minor leagues or Europe, but led defensemen in points for the Bruins.
Balanced Attack Leads to Consistency in Providence
2005 first-round pick Matt Lashoff had a good season in Providence, but would never live up to the expectations that come with a high pick. Adam McQuaid was in the midst of his first professional season. McQuaid and Matt Hunwick were the only two defenseman to find success at the next level.
There are different ways to win at the AHL-level. The 2007-08 Bruins might not have been loaded with prospects, but a group of players with some minor league experience or over-looked young players. The group was able to bring intensity on a nightly basis, with few slip-ups. The worst stretch of the season was a late four-game losing streak that required travel to Rockford, Illinois, Chicago, Houston, and San Antonio.
The Bruins were lucky in the sense that some of the factors that typically de-rail a minor league team didn’t happen. They remained relatively healthy and call-ups were manageable throughout the season. Although Krejci had a mid-season stint, it was a luxury when he was on the roster. The team finished with five players reaching the 20-goal plateau. Rookies McQuaid and Hunwick progressed on the back end. Rask would slowly improve his numbers, appearing in 45 games with third-year pro Jordan Sigalet also appearing in 19 games between the pipes.
Providence looked like a heavy favorite in the East heading into the playoffs. They fell just one win shy of the Calder Cup winning team in 1998-99. The roster was mostly intact, receiving a boost after making quick work of the Manchester Monarchs with a first-round sweep.
The big club would be eliminated in a first round 7-game series with the Montreal Canadiens. Boston opted to add Vladimir Sobotka and Petteri Nokelainen to the Bruns’ roster for the remainder of the playoff run. Both forwards had brief stints with Providence in the regular season and both were point per-game players. In what was already a special season, the P-bruins appeared to be getting another lucky break.
Next up for the Bruins was the division rival Portland Pirates. Portland played the Bruins tough in the regular season, with Providence holding a 5-3-1-0 advantage. The last meeting in the regular season was a demoralizing 7-1 win for the Bruins.
If there was one concern heading into the series, Portland’s NHL affiliate in Anaheim was also out of the running for the Stanley Cup. For the Pirates, it meant youngster Bobby Ryan was available for the series.
Ryan, the second overall pick in 2005 behind Sidney Crosby, was an elite offensive talent in the league in 2007-08. Whether he lived up to the hype of his draft position or not, Ryan was a dangerous player in the AHL in 2007-08. He got his first taste of the NHL that season, but when in the Pirates lineup he haunted the Bruins for 6 goals and five assists in 8 regular season games. If there was one weakness to the balanced Providence squad, there wasn’t a gamebreaker like Ryan. They would also be up against a goaltender with over 200 NHL appearances in Jean-Sebastien Aubin.
None of that seemed to phase the Bruins, who steamrolled to a 2-0 series lead at home, outscoring Portland 11-1. Game 3 in Portland is when the second-best season in Providence history would begin to come off the rails in heartbreaking fashion. Holding a 3-2 lead in the third period, Providence was on the cusp of going up 3-0 and remaining undefeated in the playoffs. That would all change when Ryan netted the tying goal with 57 seconds remaining. The Pirates would go on to win Game 3 in overtime.
The next game would be just as frustrating, with Aubin stopping 33 of 35 shots and Portland hanging around to get an overtime game-winner from a bottom six forward in Simon Ferguson. The Bruins dropped the next two games of the series and bowed out in the playoffs to a resilient team with a player that would go on to a pretty successful NHL career. Ryan tallied 7 points in the six-game series.
Since their inaugural season in Providence, the Bruins franchise has made it to five conference finals and won a Calder Cup championship. The 2007-08 version seemed like a team that had a chance and ultimately fell disappointingly short. The league is difficult to win, with affiliates having an impact on the team that is rolled out on any given night. There are always plenty of “what ifs” for an AHL fan.
Rask spent one more season in Providence before it was clear he was ready for the next level. Karsums, a second-round pick in 2004, never panned out in Boston but has enjoyed a long KHL career. Thompson has appeared in the most NHL games, catching on in the league as a high-energy bottom-six forward. In a month, a new group of Bruins will write their own script.