It's been a tale of two totally different seasons between the pipes for the Boston Bruins and their farm club in Providence. While the parent B’s have used Providence alums Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask to allow an average of just 2.36 goals-per-game, good for third in the NHL, the P-Bruins have surrendered a robust 3.27 goals-per-outing to rank 26th of 30 AHL clubs.
Much to the dismay of the coaching staff in Providence, it's been a very streaky season in net, where rarely has a goalie truly stolen a win. Nolan Schaefer, the assumed number one goaltender coming out of camp, has struggled at times in re-acclimating himself to the North American game after spending the 2009-10 campaign in Russia. The veteran and former Providence College product sports a 9-15-1 record in 28 games, along with a 3.14 GAA and .897 save percentage. Though his record is not entirely reflective of his play, the results don't lie. Aside from a solid three-game run in late-January, Schaefer hasn’t won a game since Dec. 19.
After Schaefer, success has been momentarily seized by rookie Michael Hutchinson and AHL freshman Matt Dalton, but neither has been able to claim the top job as his own. Instead, Hutchinson and Dalton have each split the season between Providence and Boston’s ECHL affiliate in Reading. To no surprise, both have enjoyed good success for the AA-level Royals, but it's been a challenge to consistently parlay those numbers to the next level.
Both Hutchinson and Dalton began the year in Rhode Island with Schaefer in Europe with the big club, but Dalton's two-period struggles on Opening Night resulted in a quick return to Reading, where he helped guide the Royals to the American Conference Finals as a rookie last season. With Schaefer back in tow, it was Hutchinson's turn.
The first-year goalie and 2008 third-round pick cast aside his remaining junior eligibility and, after a 1-2-0 start, went seven straight games without a loss, earning five wins. Eventually, Hutchinson was rewarded as Providence's November Player of the Month. Little did he know at the time, though, that was the start of an unfortunate trend for the club’s young goalies. After his great run ended on Nov. 24, the former OHL standout appeared in seven more games, winning only one. That ensuing rough stretch ultimately resulted in a Dec. 29 departure to Reading.
Hutchinson's loss was Dalton's gain after the second-year pro put together a strong showing following his rocky start in Providence. Dalton led the Royals to first-place in the standings behind an 11-7-0 mark, two shutouts, a 2.88 GAA and .912 save percentage, building the confidence it would take for him to finally succeed at the AHL level.
Succeed, he did. After Dalton dropped his first game back with Providence on New Year's Day, he reeled off six wins in seven games, including his first career AHL victories and first two shutouts in a P-Bruins sweater. Wouldn’t you know, Dalton was named the club’s January Player of the Month as he helped Providence to a 19-point month and thrust his team right back into the playoff race.
If such a "Player of the Month Curse" exists, however, it reared its ugly head again. Dalton lost six of his next seven starts, capped by Wednesday's embarrassing 7-0 defeat in Portland. The loss was the backstop's fifth in a row, which coincided with Providence’s season-long seventh straight collapse, including a few less-than-desirable outings that resulted in head coach Rob Murray questioning his team's effort.
Along the way, as the P-Bruins have struggled, the Royals have thrived with Hutchinson between the pipes. Since his demotion, the 20-year-old went 9-5-3 with his first professional shutout, a 2.85 GAA and a .917 save percentage in 17 games.
On Thursday, the inevitable switch was made. Hutchinson was promoted to Providence, while Dalton was handed a one-way ticket back to Reading.
Hutchinson responded favorably in his first outing back in the Ocean State on Friday night, reacting to Dalton's touchdown-sized loss in Portland with a 4-3 shootout win over those same Pirates. More impressive, the man with the plain white mask stopped 47 of 50 shots through overtime before forcing all four Pirates he dealt with in the shootout to walk the proverbial plank.
Just like that, the losing streak was over, but the uncertainty surrounding the P-Bruins' consistency in net remains.
What happens next is a mystery, but with Providence sitting nine points out of a playoff spot with 24 games remaining, the club is going to need to find the missing piece to its goaltending puzzle, whether that piece is already in the system or elsewhere.
Up north, yes, the Boston Bruins know how to put the puck in the back of the net, but they’ve shown diligence in preventing opponents from doing the same and, to their credit, stand tall at third in the Eastern Conference. It’s a lesson their brethren in Providence are trying to learn.
In many ways this season, the P-Bruins' goaltending situation has been one of a goalie-by-committee format. For weeks, Murray publicly bellowed to his net-minders, "If you win, you’re in." At times, there was a response, but for the most part the top dog in the crease has yet to be determined.
With Dalton gone and a busy schedule still ahead, it will be between Schaefer and Hutchinson to take an opportunity and run with it. Hutchinson got the first crack upon his return and, if his glove gets hot, history would show the job is his until his mitt cools down.