Unless you’ve been social distancing under a rock on the dark side of the moon, it was not a surprise when the American Hockey League announced on Monday that it had pulled the plug on what was left of the 2019-20 season.
But the inevitability of the cancellation didn’t make it any easier to swallow for the Providence Bruins.
They’d won 12 in a row and were in first place in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference with a 38-18-3-3 record when the season was paused on March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic. If anyone had a shot to make a deep playoff run, it was the P-Bruins.
While disappointed, coach Jay Leach sees the broader picture. “Keeping it in perspective, this is something that’s a lot bigger than hockey,’’ he said.
“With regard to the season and where we were — where a lot of our prospects were going, with our older guys leading the charge and being supported by two goalies that were really on the top of their game — there’s a lot of what-could-have-been going through my head.’’
With the postseason wiped out, all that’s left is to look back on the 62 games that go into the books as the ’19-20 season.
Providence was 20-12-1-2 and battling for a playoff berth on Jan. 1, then played .500 hockey in January. After a 2-1 overtime loss at home to Bridgeport on Feb. 9, they caught fire, ripping off victories in their final 12 games. It was a big step in a season-long building process.
“We had a group this year that, as a staff, we had to figure them out a little bit,’’ said Leach. “We knew we had a lot of pieces. At the same time, it maybe took us a while to really find the right fit for some guys.
“We certainly had a good team to start, but you saw down the stretch, we were really able to find some homes for some guys that put them in the best position to succeed. You really started to see us click in the last five weeks or so (before the pause).’’
Playing behind a deep, balanced team, Dan Vladar came back from an early season injury and led the AHL in save percentage and goals-against average. Trent Frederic improved his all-around game and established himself as a physical presence. Jakub Zboril was a standout in February and March.
“I was really excited to see Vladdy put the time in with (goalie coach Mike Dunham) and find his game to a point where he was really one of the top goalies in the league. I was excited to see Zboril excel in defending hard and transitioning well,’’ Leach said.
Jack Studnicka, who scored 23 goals and 49 points in 60 games while logging big minutes in all situations, was the team’s best player and one of the AHL’s top rookies.
“Jack’s a pretty special case. I know he’s a very talented player and we expect a lot from him, but for a 20-year-old kid to come in a perform as well as he did and in crucial situations for us – what did he have, seven shorthanded goals? These things don’t happen often with 20-year-olds in this league. They just don’t,’’ Leach said.
He pointed to a February win over Laval, which had Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the third overall pick by Montreal in the 2018 NHL Draft, in its lineup.
“Kotkaniemi certainly was a presence, especially on the power play. But I’d put Jack right there next to him, with his game at the American League level. And (Kotkaniemi is) a guy that’s been playing pro for a couple of years. Pretty impressive to see what Jack did this year,’’ Leach said.
“We evaluate players in certain ways and one of the criteria is whether they have swag or gamesmanship in a critical juncture, (the ability) to turn it on. Jack showed that.’’
Cameron Hughes was an unsung player, capable of contributing up and down the lineup.
“Hughesy for me is a guy that no one really talks about for whatever reason. He kind of gets lost in the shuffle. But that guy can do so much for you. You can put him on the power play one night and he can set up a couple of quality chances or score a goal. The next night he’s not even on the damn thing and he’s the best penalty killer out there. We know that about him, but at the same time we take him a little bit for granted from time to time.
“When you have success, you have to have the players that can get you there. We certainly had that this year.’’
Leadership is critical on any good team and the P-Bruins received contributions from a number of players.
“We had some guys hit their stride in that department. (Zach Senyshyn) is a terrific example. He’s a guy that everybody likes to be around. He’s always had that in him. I think he was able to take a little bit more of a leadership role this year with that,’’ Leach said.
“We were able to sign Brendan Woods, who is just a terrific character piece, along with (Brendan) Gaunce. We all know (captain) Paul Carey is like that. So you have a core group. And then you’ve got (Urho) Vaakanainen, who was a little bit more outspoken in the room. He loves hanging out with the guys. He loves playing. That showed through in his play. It became infectious in the group.’’
Shift in and shift out, Josiah Didier set the standard for competing and being hard to play against.
“There were just a lot of guys who really like playing with one another. That can happen most years, but we had a bunch of guys who were really wanting to take the lead on that. Once that happened, everybody followed and we had a close group.’’
But for all the good that was accomplished, missing out on the postseason leaves a sour taste.
“We’ve talked about this from Day One: We want to be playing meaningful games in April, May, June. It’s a critical piece for development. It’s definitely disappointing to not be able to see it through,’’ said Leach.