Boston Bruins Farm Report: Craig Cunningham Raising His Bar in Providence

Al DanielCorrespondent IIMarch 4, 2013

UNIONDALE, NY - SEPTEMBER 12: Craig Cunningham #61 of the Boston Bruins skates against the New York Islanders during a rookie game exhibition at Nassau Coliseum on September 12, 2011 in Uniondale, New York. The Bruins defeated the Islanders 8-5.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Boston Bruins prospect Craig Cunningham has established himself as the resident iron man of the prospect pipeline and, save for a goal-less November, resisted the sophomore slide.

The only Providence player to dress for all 76 games last season, Cunningham led the AHL Bruins with 20 goals as a rookie. Through the conclusion of this past weekend’s action, he is the lone P-Bruin to have seen action in all 56 outings so far and trails only Jamie Tardif on the goal-scoring leaderboard.

He whittled down that gap on Sunday by tallying his first professional hat trick amidst a 7-1 throttling of the Portland Pirates, which doubled the Bruins’ lead for first place in the Atlantic Division.

The three goals give Cunningham a 17-12-29 scoring log with 20 games left in the regular season. At this exact point in the 2011-12 itinerary, which Providence reached on Feb. 25, he had amassed a 12-12-24 transcript.

Over the subsequent homestretch, the rookie Cunningham caught fire in March with six goals and four assists in a span of 11 games. His totals over the final 20 contests were 8-4-12, meaning he produced 50 percent of his output from the first three quarters of the schedule within the final quarter.

An encore in the spring of 2013, particularly one that improves on his single point in the last seven games, could put him on deck for at least semi-regular NHL action in 2013-14. All the more so if he stands out amidst a return to Calder Cup playoff action, which the Bruins’ top farm team has not seen in four years.

Cunningham was symptomatic of streakiness to start this season, tallying two goals in the first four games before going on a wretched drought that spanned 18 contests from Oct. 26 to Dec. 14. He later had a six-game and then a five-game hex in December and January, but he halted the latter with his first set of consecutive goal-scoring ventures.

Since the final weekend of January, Cunningham has gone no more than two straight games without a point, charging up a 10-4-14 log over his last 17. That’s coming after he went 7-8-15 in his first 39 of the year.

That renewed consistency has been crucial to keeping the P-Bruins’ winning habits intact. The same could be said about Jordan Caron, who has a 4-3-7 scoring log over his last nine ventures, and Christian Hanson (3-5-8 in the last 10).

Cunningham’s fellow left winger, Max Sauve, has been out of action since Feb. 12. Carter Camper remains third on the team’s point-getting leaderboard despite missing every game since Feb. 16.

Yet Providence has gone 4-1-2 since Camper last played and 6-1-2 without Sauve.

Cunningham has assumed a position in the copilot cockpit in flexing the depth of the Providence strike force. He is now beginning an initial descent to what ought to be familiar territory, namely the last 20 dates on an AHL regular-season docket.

With an individual effort reminiscent of the previous homestretch, it will be impossible for general manager Peter Chiarelli not to dole out a shuttle ticket between the capitals of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Like current call-up Chris Bourque, Cunningham is a somewhat undersized left winger. But at least as far as their profiles on the Bruins’ official website will tell, Cunningham has two inches and 10 pounds on Bourque.

Furthermore, Cunningham is five years younger and therefore has more conceivable potential to cultivate. His superior durability over virtually all Providence teammates is worth remembering as well.

If he stays on, let alone accelerates his pace, he will inevitably enter the equation as a potential long-term solution to filling out Boston’s top nine.


One-Blunder Limit

If the results are any indication, the Providence defense is joining the offense in stepping up its game. For the second time in five weekends and in 2012-13 as a whole, the Baby B's confined their adversaries to only three regulation goals in as many consecutive game days.

The Worcester Sharks, Springfield Falcons and Portland Pirates all managed one official lamp-lighter apiece. The Falcons did reap a 2-1 shootout decision in their favor on Saturday, but Providence pasted Portland and Worcester by a cumulative score of 10-2.

Sunday’s all-around romp was all the more impressive for multiple reasons. The second-place Pirates had just annihilated the Bruins, 6-3, last Tuesday and, from the 8:21 mark of the first period onward, Providence had to play without Garnet Exelby.

The 31-year-old Exelby, the elder statesman of the blue-line brigade and the team’s plus/minus leader at plus-11, was ejected for boarding only 58 seconds after Justin Florek had opened the scoring. But the Bruins augmented their advantage to 3-0 and later shook off Niklas Svedberg’s lone mistake in net to repress the second-place Pirates.


Any Alexanders Coming Soon?

With five games left in their regular season, the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires trail the Saginaw Spirit, who have two games in hand, for the last available playoff spot in the Western Conference.

A combination of one Saginaw victory and one Windsor loss or two of one or the other will make the inevitable official. It can be declared a foregone conclusion that the Spits’ season will end on Mar. 17 and Bruins prospect Alexander Khokhlachev’s major junior career along with it.

Khokhlachev, Boston’s second-round choice from 2011 who will turn 20 in September, could thus join Providence for the final month of the AHL season. Current first-year pro Ryan Spooner did that early last April when his OHL campaign ended.

Alexander Fallstrom, a senior at Harvard University, is another potential amateur call-up to watch for. The 9-17-3 Crimson are visiting Dartmouth to start the ECAC playoffs in a best-of-three series this weekend and do not look like a candidate to claim the conference crown and automatic bid to the NCAA dance.