PROVIDENCE — The only other time before this season that the Providence Bruins played the Phantoms in a playoff series, it was a doozy.
“A big-boy series,’’ recalled Jay Leach, a P-Bruins defenseman at the time.
“Their fourth line was (Todd) Fedoruk, (Josh) Gratton, (Riley) Cote. I do remember we had a brawl in one game that lasted a long time. It was a different era. It was a war. They were a very, very good team.’’
It was the 2004-05 season. The Phantoms were in Philadelphia then, before they made the move to Allentown and changed their name to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
Because it was an NHL lockout year, rosters throughout the American Hockey League were stacked with up-and-coming stars like Patrice Bergeron and Eric Staal, who would otherwise have been playing with their parent clubs.
With 103 points, the Phantoms finished second in the East Division behind Binghamton. They beat Bingo in six and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in five to reach the Eastern Conference finals.
Providence had a tougher road. They had to win 10 of their final 15 games to get to the postseason, finishing fourth in the Atlantic Division with 90 points, way behind Manchester, which led the Eastern conference with 110 points.
“The biggest thing is the character that we had on our team. When you look at the players that we had – we were basically put together at the last minute. I think a third of the team was on 25-game tryouts,’’ Scott Gordon recalled this week. He was coaching the P-Bruins then and is now the coach with Lehigh Valley.
“Our No. 1 goalie, Hannu Toivonen, got hurt and wins were hard to come by for a while. Then when he came back, we went on a tear and it got us in the playoffs, so we went into the playoffs basically playing playoff hockey for a month.’’
Facing Manchester, coached by Bruce Boudreau, in the first round, the P-Bruins blew them out in Game One on the road, 5-1, chasing starter Mathieu Garon from the net.
With the series knotted at two, Providence pulled out a 4-2 road win in Game Five as leading scorer Andy Hilbert assisted on all four goals. Then the P-Bruins sent the Monarchs packing with a 3-1 win in Game Six behind goals by Bergeron and Brad Boyes and an empty-netter by Jaymie Filipowicz.
Next up was Lowell, led by Staal and Cam Ward. Providence took Game One and never looked back, beating the Lock Monsters in five games.
Philadelphia was next in the Eastern Conference finals and the P-Bruins were feeling optimistic about their chances.
“I think there was a belief in the room that we had a good chance of winning the Calder Cup,’’ said Gordon. “I’m looking at our team and I’m looking at Philadelphia and I’m saying to myself, ‘They’re pretty thin at center but they going to add these two kids from junior.’ I was like, ‘we should have an advantage here.’
“I feel pretty confident with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Boyes as our centers. One guy played in the NHL the year before and the other guy had been a pro for four or five years. Little did I know that the two guys they brought in were pretty good players in (Jeff) Carter and (Mike) Richards.’’
The Phantoms took Game One, 4-2, behind a Freddy Meyer hat trick. The game was punctuated by a bout between Colton Orr of the P-Bruins and Philly heavyweight Fedoruk, who was known as “The Fridge.”
There was a sizable scrum during warmups before Game Two with plenty of pushing, shoving and face washes. When the puck dropped, Providence was blanked, 3-0, by Philly goalie Antero Niittymaki.
Back in Providence, the P-Bruins won Game Three, 2-1, on Boyes’ overtime goal. A brawl broke out after the deciding goal, with Boyes and Richards trading blows at center ice. Both were suspended for the next game.
With the flu running through the team, Providence lost, 2-1, in Game Four, to fall behind by three games to one.
With their backs to the wall, the P-Bruins dug deep in Game Five, sending Niittymaki to the end of the bench halfway through a 6-4 Providence win.
In Philadelphia for Game Six, Carter scored a goal and set up another in a 4-1 victory, clinching the series, four games to two. The Phantoms would go on to sweep the Chicago Wolves and take home the Calder Cup.
“A lot of people thought we overachieved. But I don’t think we did,’’ Jay Henderson of the P-Bruins told Dan Hickling, who covered the game for The Providence Journal.
“It was a pleasure being on this team,’’ added Ben Guite. “Guys night in and night out gave everything they had.’’
Looking back, Gordon appreciates that his team was beaten by a powerful opponent.
“You look at (the Phantoms) roster now and three quarters of their team played a significant amount of games in the NHL. At the time you don’t realize how good they were, but that was probably one of the better teams that ever played in the AHL,’’ he said.