PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — Guys were feeling good about themselves after the third period, said head coach Bruce Cassidy.
“Why wouldn’t they?”
Entering the final 20 minutes of regulation, the Providence Bruins trailed the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins 4-1 in Game 3 of the Calder Cup Atlantic Division Semifinals, a best-of-five series in which the B’s were already in a 2-0 hole. They had lost the first two games on the road and needed a win Saturday to keep the season alive.
So after the “best period [they’d] had of the three games,” rallying from that three-goal deficit to tie things up with just under four minutes left in the third, they “deserved” to feel that way during the intermission prior to the start of overtime, Cassidy said.
On 20 shots in as many minutes that frame, Providence netted a trio of goals off the sticks of defenseman Chris Breen, captain Tommy Cross — both shots from the point — and centerman Austin Czarnik.
But despite a 63-37 disparity in shots favoring the P-Bruins, 33 minutes and 52 seconds worth of extra time wound up going the other way.
Pens winger Tom Kostopoulos, entering the zone on the right-wing boards, fed the puck to a streaking Jake Guentzel, who by that time was in the slot with defenseman Ben Youds on his tail. As Youds stumbled, the WBS center finished off his opportunity, beating netminder Jeremy Smith blocker side to end the series and Providence’s season.
Not only did the Penguins end up sweeping the Bruins, but they did so on three straight overtime winners.
“It’s tough when you go out like that, three overtime games, but I thought we left it all on the line,” said forward Frank Vatrano. “The hockey gods didn’t give us our bounces and it’s just a tough way to go out. We left it all out there, though, fought back, 4-1, had some chances to put the game away but sometimes that’s not how it goes.”
Much like the series, the P-Bruins found themselves down 2-0 a little more than halfway through the first period. Shots were even, 8-8, by stanza’s end, but Cassidy said he wasn’t sure the guys the team typically relies on to get going were “invested early on.” Most of the talking, then, ended up taking place after the opening period.
Cassidy gave “a little emotional speech” to get the team going and thinking, Czarnik said, and the B’s “simplified [their] game, got pucks to the net and worked [their] way back into it.”
Czarnik was one of the players challenged between periods, Cassidy said, adding that this is the time of year when you need your best players to be your best players. The forward ended up answering the call, finally getting the P-Bruins on the board 13:39 into the second.
Providence was outscored in that frame 2-1 but outshot the Pens 17-5 in the meantime.
“We’ve talked about it all year,” Cassidy said, “and Max Talbot said it in the time out, listen, you might win, you might lose, but you’ve got to go out competing and go out fighting, and that’s kind of the mentality you have to have. We bought into it and off we went.”
Then came the three-goal third. Two goals a little over three minutes apart got Providence within one with 14:30 left to play. As the clock ticked down to four minutes remaining, Czarnik took a dish from linemate Alexander Khokhlachev and one-timed it on net from the high slot past WBS goalie Casey DeSmith.
With all the momentum in the hands of the P-Bruins, Cassidy said, their best chance at winning the game likely came in those final three or four minutes. The Pens were on their heels as the B’s pressed and took shot after shot, but the intermission allowed WBS to regroup.
During OT, shots were even at 18-18, but Guentzel’s winner ended up being the difference and the cap on Providence’s 2015-16 season.
Three skaters in the top 10 in the AHL in points, one of the best home win percentages in the league, a 23-game home point streak for the team and the best record in the league since Jan. 1 were just a few highlights of the year.
“It was awesome,” Vatrano said. “It was a fun ride. We had a really great group down here and I enjoyed coming to the rink every day with these guys.”
“Where we were at in October,” Czarnik added, “worst team in the league to where we came speaks a lot about everyone in the room, their commitment to the organization, their battle level, their compete level, everything like that. So I love all of them in there, they did a great job all year, and I’m proud to be their teammate.”