When the 2008-09 regular season ended, Boston’s top affiliate in Providence sat second in the Atlantic Division standings with 94 points, six ahead of the third-place Portland Pirates, the premier farm club of the Buffalo Sabres. With division seeding key to the American Hockey League playoff format, that left the P-Bruins and Pirates set to do battle in the Atlantic Division semifinals. It would be the clubs’ fourth postseason showdown since 2004, with each of the previous three series plundered by the Pirates, including the 2008 division finals.
For the prior three meetings, rookie P-Bruins head coach Rob Murray was an assistant. This time, he was the lead man behind the bench, and his club was looking for revenge.
Powered by sophomore goaltender Tuukka Rask — a 33-game winner during the AHL regular season (who shut out the New York Rangers after a January call-up to the Bruins) — Murray had his horse in net. He also had Johnny Boychuk, Providence’s leading scorer with 66 points and the AHL’s Eddie Shore Award winner as the league’s outstanding defenseman. Add in Vladimir Sobotka, sent south from Boston just in time for the postseason, and reliable blue-liner Adam McQuaid, a defensive specialist on the back end., and the P-Bruins were ready.
On the other side was left wing Tim Kennedy, who tied for Portland’s scoring lead with a remarkable 67 points in his first professional season and was named to the AHL’s All-Rookie Team.
Head-to-head, Providence had the slight edge in the standings, but the teams essentially were even after collecting five wins apiece against one another during the regular season. Like Providence with Rask, Portland relied on its stud in net, rookie Jhonas Enroth, who won 26 games in 58 tries prior to the postseason.
The Pirates rode a two-game winning streak into the playoffs, while the P-Bruins dropped their final two tune-up contests. In the series’ opening game, both teams picked up where they left off. Providence was blanked 3-0 after a 28-save shutout by Enroth, while Rask stopped 30 shots and Boychuk suffered a minus-3 rating. But with two nights to regroup, the P-Bruins responded with a 2-1 win in Game 2, thanks to 27 saves by Rask and a timely second-period goal by Sobotka.
The series then shifted to Maine for the next two games of the series after Portland did its job to earn the split in the Ocean State. However, in Game 3, the P-Bruins looked like the home team. Rask blocked 25 shots en route to an easy 5-1 victory, while Boychuk and Sobotka combined for three goals, seven points and a plus-4 rating. Fittingly, Sobotka, with three of his four points coming on special teams, earned the top star of the game, followed thereafter by Boychuk and Rask. At the very least, Providence reclaimed home-ice advantage, but Murray’s squad wasn’t looking to settle. In Game 4, the P-Bruins relied on tremendous defense between the pipes from Rask, who guided Providence to a 2-1 win behind 31 saves and top star honors.
Leading 3-1 in the best-of-seven set, Providence looked to move on to the second round in Game 5. The slender netminder from Finland was again the center of attention as the P-Bruins rallied from behind to capture yet another 2-1 advantage and the series. Rask was the top star once more with 29 saves as Providence finally secured the redemption it had been seeking for so many years. The second-year pro finished the five games with a slim 1.20 goals-against average and a robust .959 save percentage after allowing only one goal in each of his team’s four wins.
Equally impressive, Rask limited Kennedy and AHL Rookie of the Year Nathan Gerbe to just one point, a mere assist, after the duo combined for 123 points during the regular season.
Sobotka, meanwhile, shared Providence’s lead with five points as the P-Bruins defeated the Pirates in the playoffs for the first time since 1995.
Fast-forward to today, and Boston holds a 3-1 series lead over Buffalo after dropping Game 1 and reeling off three straight wins. Perhaps that’s just a coincidence. Perhaps Rask, Boychuk, Sobotka and McQuaid have no idea of the comparisons to what went on last April.
Maybe Kennedy doesn’t either.
But on April 24, 2009, the Sabres’ AHL affiliate began the process of cleaning out their lockers and packing for home. On April 24, 2010, the Sabres’ NHL club could be doing the same.