The Best Bruins Team Isn’t In Boston, It’s In Providence

Amidst constant roster shuffling, the Providence Bruins continue to be the best B's team this season.

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Providence's Austin Czarnik guided the B's to their fourth straight win on Sunday.

Although the Boston Bruins have recently gotten healthy and ran off six wins in seven games prior to Monday, they are not the best B’s squad.

That resides about an hour south on I-95, and in a totally different state.

The Providence Bruins are currently in the midst of a four-game winning streak, have won six of their last seven (sound familiar?), and are part of a tightly contested Atlantic Division that has six teams within four points of each other.

The Baby B’s have allowed the second fewest goals in the 15-team Eastern Conference, and have allowed two goals or less in 14 of their 21 contests this season.  They don’t have a skater in the top 20 in the AHL in points or assists, but have two players – Jordan Szwarz and Jakub Zboril – with a plus/minus rating over +10.

Their top goaltender, Zane McIntyre, has taken a step back after a tremendous 2016-17 season, toting a 7-4-1 record and a 2.84 GAA this year after a stellar 21-6-4 record and 2.03 GAA last year.  But backup netminder Jordan Binnington has been spectacular, ranking fourth in the AHL with a 1.83 GAA and fifth with a .930 save percentage in seven starts.

The P-Bruins’ 13-6-2 record is even more impressive after considering how many players have been called up to Boston during the first two months of the season.  The Big Bruins have dealt with a plethora of injuries this season, and there has been a revolving door of call-ups and demotions that may be mercifully coming to an end (fingers and toes crossed).

Nine P-Bruins have spent time in the NHL so far this year, with several of them succeeding with the Baby B’s once they returned from Boston.  Others, like Danton Heinen and Matt Grzelcyk, have exceeded expectations and may have carved out permanent roles in Boston even after the team finally becomes a fully healthy NHL squad.

The last three games (all victories) have been a microcosm of the entire season for the P-Bruins.  Each game had a different player lead the way offensively, while the defense and goaltending limited the opposition to two goals or less.

Much of the credit for Providence’s success has to go to their coaching staff, especially new head coach Jay Leach.  Leach was an assistant on last year’s squad that made the Eastern Conference Finals, and took over at the helm after Kevin Dean was promoted to Bruce Cassidy’s staff in Boston.  Leach has had to deal with the shuffling roster, juggling lines and personnel all season long, yet the P-Bruins have lost back-to-back games just twice this year.

LAST WEEK

On Friday night, rookie Ryan Fitzgerald picked up the Gordie Howe hat trick in Providence’s 3-2 victory over Binghamton, as he scored a goal, assisted on two others, and drew 17 penalty minutes for a fight with 27 seconds left in the second period.  The 23-year-old center, who was a fourth round pick for Boston in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, is one of six P-Bruins with double digits in points (six goals, five assists), and is second on the team with his 31 penalty minutes.  Fitzgerald led the Boston College Eagles in goals scored in his sophomore and junior seasons, and was the Assistant Captain in his senior season where he scored 12 goals and added 19 assists before turning pro on March 24, 2017.

On Saturday, Szwarz lit the lamp twice, with his second goal of the game becoming the eventual game winner in a 4-2 victory over the same Binghamton Devils squad.  Szwarz recently returned to the P-Bruins after a month-long stint with Boston, and resumed his scoring ways in the AHL, as he has seven goals and five assists in just nine games with Providence.  His third-period goal snapped a 2-2 tie with 8:20 left in regulation, and defenseman Rob O’Gara – another player who spent time in Boston – added insurance with a goal (assisted by Szwarz) just 33 seconds later to ensure Providence’s second consecutive home victory over the Devils.

It was the Austin Czarnik show on Sunday for Providence, as the forward scored twice and added an assist in the B’s 4-1 win over Bridgeport.  Czarnik has also spent some time in the NHL this season, with one assist and a -3 rating in six games over two separate stints with Boston.  The 25-year-old is the leading scorer in Providence, with seven goals and 11 assists in 15 games, while notching three power-play goals and two game-winners along with a +3 rating this season.  Czarnik’s first goal came early in the second period, which tied the game at 1-1, while the second was of the empty net variety to firmly put the contest into the win column yet again.  He also combined with Szwarz in assisting on the game-winning tally from Colton Hargrove with just 21 seconds expired in the final period.  McIntyre made 26 saves and shutout the Sound Tigers for the final 50+ minutes of play for his second straight victory (he was in net in Friday’s W with Binnington picking up the win on Saturday).

UPCOMING GAMES

The B’s will spend the coming weekend on home ice before embarking on a lengthy eight-game road trip that encompasses the next three weeks.  After Sunday’s matinee, Providence will not visit the Dunkin’ Donuts Center until 2018.  On Friday night, the P-Bruins host the Hartford Wolf Pack (8-12-4), who have just two wins in their last ten games and sit just one point out of the cellar in the Atlantic Division.  The Utica Comets (10-9-2) of the North Division will travel to Providence for back-to-back games on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, which serves as the B’s last home games of the calendar year.  Utica is one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference, as they have earned points in five straight games, with a wild 7-6 overtime loss to Bridgeport serving as their only defeat since before Thanksgiving.