Last week, the Providence Bruins fell short in a variety of comeback efforts in their second-round playoff bout with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins. No bright spot in that bittersweet brew radiated more than Khokhlachev, who put a stamp on a productive professional rookie season.
Khokhlachev made his first, and so far only, appearance with Boston on April 13. He logged 15 minutes and 14 seconds of ice time, landed two shots, a hit and a takeaway and took 17 faceoffs.
After that regular-season finale in New Jersey, head coach Claude Julien told Jess Isner of the team’s website, “Khokhlachev…competes really hard, he gets his nose dirty everywhere, he makes things happen, and you know, he’s battling hard on those draws, so that was a good thing to see.”
Upon returning to the minors, Khokhlachev went silent in the scoring department for the balance of the AHL’s regular season. But for the subsequent month, nearly every quality the Boston bench boss mentioned was on dependable display.
That trend intensified as the Calder Cup playoffs progressed, even when Providence skidded to second-round defeat.
The P-Bruins buried eight goals over a pair of elimination road games at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The 20-year-old Russian finished half of that output and initiated another scoring play to earn an assist.
Providence forced a Game 7 with a 4-1 triumph last Monday. Khokhlachev piloted the pace-setting, three-goal outburst in that game by sandwiching two strikes around a helper.
Two nights later, the P-Bruins had a 5-0 deficit glowering upon them until the final minute of the middle frame. After they whittled that difference down to 5-2, Khokhlachev reduced it to 5-4, the eventual final.
His five contributions over those two games split a pair of common threads. If a given scoring play did not demonstrate Khokhlachev’s quickness and craft, it rewarded his hustle to the net.
He broke the ice in Game 6 by stickhandling up the near alley uncontested from the Providence blue line to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton slot. Once there, he elevated a wrist shot over genuflecting goaltender Peter Mannino.
The biscuit was likewise on his blade when the Bruins entered the offensive zone en route to their second goal. A rolling back-and-forth exchange with Jared Knight culminated in a fruitful feed to eventual scorer Bobby Robins.
In Wednesday’s third period, after winning a convergence to the corner and chipping the puck to teammate Matt Lindblad, Khokhlachev floated back to the cage. He positioned himself in the same vicinity as his second Game 6 goal and tipped in blueliner David Warsofsky’s bid.
Three minutes and 12 seconds later, Khokhlachev followed puck-carrier Ryan Spooner onto Penguins property. He cut through a multitude of back-checkers down the center lane and nimbly shoveled Spooner’s lateral feed home.
That was the last of the rewards Providence would reap for anyone’s valiance. However, Khokhlachev had made the most of his minutes to flourish consistently throughout the series and the preceding best-of-five versus Springfield.
In addition to both elimination games, he also charged up a two-goal road performance in the second-round series opener. He tuned the opposing mesh at least once in six of the Bruins’ 12 total playoff engagements, starting with Game 4 of the opening round.
Even before he picked up his firsthand production, Khokhlachev was making his efforts count in the assist column. As such, he never went multiple games without a point during the two-round run.
His first of four multipoint performances came in the deciding tilt of the Springfield series. That night, a prudent pass off the neutral zone wall led to Seth Griffith’s first of two unanswered tallies to fill a 3-1 pothole.
Khokhlachev later absorbed Joe Morrow’s diagonal feed in neutral ice, strolled onto Falcons property and sliced between both blueliners to deposit the go-ahead goal and eventual clincher.
All he did to build on that in the next round was charge up a 7-3-10 scoring log.
For Boston’s brass, that must be an encouraging follow-up on a regular season that saw Khokhlachev top the Baby Bs’ chart with a 21-36-57 scoring log. His playmaking rarely tapered off and his goal production picked up with 10 in his last 25 regular-season outings after 11 in his first 40.
What this means for his 2014-15 trajectory will depend, first and foremost, on an immediate need on Boston’s depth chart. But Khokhlachev has two specimens of encouraging historical context in a pair of prospective NHL teammates.
The last rookie to lead Providence in assists and points was a then-burgeoning pivot named David Krejci. As a 20-year-old in the 2006-07 season, Krejci stamped 31 goals and 43 helpers in 69 regular-season ventures.
Like Khokhlachev, Krejci was consistent under the assist heading and started to diversify his production down the stretch. He would finish 24 goals of his own in the last 34 games after mustering seven in the first 35.
With 14 postseason points overall, Khokhlachev is also the first P-Bruins rookie to have averaged a point per game or better in the playoffs since Krejci. Boston’s current first-line center stamped a 3-13-16 scoring log while playing in 13 Calder Cup contests in 2007.
In between, Brad Marchand came close to the same distinction with 15 points over 16 ventures in the 2009 tournament.
Naturally, Krejci and Marchand have since evolved into top-six staples on Boston’s line chart. After their first full respective seasons in the system, they returned to Providence, but played less than half of the schedule before cementing permanent NHL employment.
Krejci started 2007-08 in The Show, then logged 25 more appearances in the minors over a two-month stint. He donned the Spoked-P for the final time on Dec. 29, 2007.
Marchand started 2009-10 in Providence, then earned his first protracted promotion after a six-game production streak over the first two weeks. After a month in Boston, he was back on the farm by Nov. 21. But March 3, 2010 would constitute his final AHL appearance.
It would not be a stretch to envision a similar split of the 2014-15 campaign for Khokhlachev. The Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa even hinted that the youngster, along with Spooner, may qualify to supplant the likes of Gregory Campbell as Boston’s fourth-line center.
Shinzawa elaborated in a May 18 column that the NHL’s conditions are shifting to a point where lower-tier lines need less physicality and more finesse. He went on to write that “In the middle, Ryan Spooner and Alexander Khokhlachev are pushing from below. Neither has Campbell’s grit, physicality, or experience. But they’re faster, more skilled, and better equipped to play with the puck.”
The highlights from Game 1, Game 6 and Game 7 of the second round verify the plus points of that assessment. Quick feet, quick thinking and opportunism allowed Khokhlachev to bookend the scoring in the series with eight other points in between.
If Shinzawa’s vision comes to fruition, then Khokhlachev is fast-tracking toward a sophomore surge a la Krejci and Marchand. Established NHL employment by midseason could be his to lose in 2014-15.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via theahl.com