While Boston’s hockey team was off-duty due to the All-Star break, Boston’s AHL farm club in Providence put on an NHL-type show.
Featuring a top-line of Frank Vatrano – Seth Griffith – David Pastrnak, the P-Bruins blitzed the Springfield Falcons on Friday night at the Dunkin Donuts’ Center by a final of 8-1. Vatrano and Griffith each had five points, with Vatrano’s hat-trick stealing the show, while Pastrnak added a goal and two assists.
And while the 19-year-old Pastrnak is almost assuredly on a short-term loan to Providence as he continues to sharpen his game after missing time due to injuries, the 21-year-old Vatrano and 23-year-old Griffith are making strong cases that they should be working back in Boston soon, too.
With Griffith’s goal-and-four-assist night Friday he took over the AHL scoring lead, having compiled 46-points (14-goals and 32-assists) over his 35-games of action. And that’s having played some 10 to 12 fewer games than many other players close behind him on the AHL points’ leaderboard.
Vatrano, meanwhile, has already seen 30-games on NHL ice this season. Since being demoted on January 21 due in-part to a Boston numbers-crunch, all Vatrano has done is light up the AHL stat sheets to the tune of six goals and four assists over a four-game stretch. In 15 AHL games this year, he has now scored 16 times.
“I just feel more and more confident on the ice,” Vatrano said of his second stint in the AHL this season. “Plays are coming quicker to me, I feel like I have more time and space. I came down here to make a statement when I got sent down from Boston, and I’m feeling really great out there. Playing with some good guys down here has helped me build confidence.”
In order to get the three promising prospects on a line together, Providence Coach Bruce Cassidy shifted Griffith over from his normal right-wing spot to center.
“Pastnak got assigned here and it was the easiest way to keep continuity in our lineup,” explained Cassidy. “It allowed Pastrnak to play with some skill, too. He’s just better when he’s allowed to do that. He needed a game where some things happen for him offensively. So I didn’t want to play him on a checking, energy line, even though he may do that in Boston. To get a good feel for the puck, that’s ultimately how he’s going to make hay in Boston. He was able to do that tonight.”
“It was a fun game,” said Pastrnak. “We played good, had a good start and followed up. I played with good players. I missed a lot of hockey because a had a lot of injuries, [so] they sent me here to play more. My finger is getting back, so it’s nice to be able to stick-handle the puck a little bit and get back into my shape. The finger doesn’t really hurt, but I played with a brace on so the brace kind of affected me with the stick-handling. Now, I’m playing without so it’s good to get back my hands.”
Two of Vatrano’s goals came on the power-play, where he manned the middle of the ice. Griffith earned assists on both man-advantage goals, starting tic-tac-toe passing sequences from his position on the left half-wall. Pastrnak set up Vatrano’s third tally at even-strength, bringing the hats over the boards at the ‘Dunk.’
“Our line had really good chemistry going,” said Griffith. “We hadn’t ever played together but it’s a good fit, Pastrnak and I are both kind of playmakers and obviously Frankie is going to shoot the puck every chance he gets. I’m happy for him to get his hat-trick. We were talking about it the whole time. Sometimes you can get a lot of two-goal games but it’s hard to get that last one. ‘Pasty’ gave him a nice pass there in front and I’m glad he got a stick on that to go in.”
“Everybody knows he’s a shooter,” Pastrnak said of Vatrano. “All you need to do is just give him the puck. Great skater, just follow what he needs to give him the puck, that’s what Griffith and I were trying to do.”
From Cassidy’s view, Vatrano is the same player he saw in Providence in October, but with a little more polish.
“He scored a lot when he was here [before] and he’s still scoring,” Cassidy said. “His awareness is better away from the puck, something he’s made a conscious effort to get better at. Just defending in his own end, getting positionally sound, better stick. His open-ice bursts were good then but he seems to be able to separate a little more assertively. That probably just comes from being more comfortable playing. He was a pretty good player for us before he left all-around, but like a lot of younger guys it’s a feel for the league a little bit, noticing some details in [your] 200-foot game.”
Vatrano is only a year removed from playing college hockey at UMass-Amherst, and has already had a big taste of NHL life. Griffith, meanwhile, has now played parts of three seasons in the AHL, with his biggest chunk of big-league action last season during a 30-game cameo in Boston.
“I got a chance to go up there for two games [this season], the game before the Winter Classic and the Classic,” said Griffith. “The offense can come if I work at it, but it’s just the little things like the D-zone and down here [Cassidy] talks to me about it a lot. I’m going to have to work on it if I want to make the jump to the next level. My dream is to play in the NHL, I want to be back there as soon as possible but as long as I keep working here doing the best you can do, that’s all you can do, right? Just got to wait for your chance and when you get that chance you’ve got to make the most of it.”
Cassidy said he knows it can be a challenge for players to bide their time, but staying ready is the key.
“You’d have to ask them if it drives them nuts when they go home at night,” Cassidy said when asked how patient Vatrano and Griffith have been as pupils. ‘Listen, you control your own environment as with any job. Their job is to come here and play hard, practice hard, get better. When the chance comes, take advantage of it.”
Cassidy continued: “I’ve seen different paths for guys. I’ve seen Vatrano go up early in his career. Ryan Spooner had to wait a full two-and-a-half years and when he did he never looked back. Once they do get [a chance] it’s time to make sure they’re ready. That’s the only advice I try to give them, ‘You don’t know when it’s coming so if you’re sulking and not working and get yourself out of shape then when your call does come and you’re not prepared you only have yourself to blame.’’
“Just like at the beginning [of my career], I was doing well and being patient,” Vatrano said. “Some guys got called up before me but I didn’t get down on myself. Those guys deserved it just as much as I did to get called up. When it was my time to go up there I just wanted to make a statement and show I could play in the NHL. I think I did that for the two months I was up there. It’s a numbers thing up there right now so I’ve just got to come down here and keep playing my game, work on the things I need to get better to be a full-timer.”
Vatrano continued: “Just building off what I was doing good up there, and don’t let that slip away from me. There are some times where things don’t go your way in a game [in the NHL], especially I wasn’t playing a lot of minutes. I can’t dwell on the mistakes I was making in a game, whether it was one or two mistakes, just push that aside and do the little things right. That’s the biggest thing about being up there, obviously it’s a good thing if you’re scoring goals and getting points, but if the puck’s going in your net and you’re not making those little things happen then someone else is going to take your job. It’s something I really took to heart, and I’ve just got to be consistent every night.”