PROVIDENCE — The unthinkable in the National Hockey League is a way of life in the American Hockey League.
Up top, as minor leaguers refer to the varsity, players do not play three games in three days, even with the fastest and plushest of private jets at their disposal.
Niklas Svedberg’s eventual destination is the NHL, where the goalie will never assume a three-in-three workload. But last month, after Providence’s 2-1 road win over Portland on Nov. 17, Svedberg informed his boss that he needed to prepare for every situation. Even the ones that aren’t going to happen in the NHL.
The 23-year-old Svedberg was coming off a 36-save performance for his second win in two nights. The following afternoon, Providence would host Bridgeport at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Coach Bruce Cassidy could have spelled Svedberg by starting Michael Hutchinson against the Sound Tigers. Svedberg, however, wasn’t planning on a day off.
“We’re busing back from Portland and got a 3 o’clock game the next day,” Cassidy recalled. “He’s like, ‘Well, I want to go back in. Go ahead and use me.’
“He’s a guy that wants the net. There’s no doubt there. He’s not sitting there saying, ‘Well, we don’t play three-in-three in the NHL. I don’t know why I should have to.’ There’s never an answer like that. It’s, ‘I’ve got to learn how to do it because that’s the schedule.’
“He’s dialed, let’s put it that way.”
It was somewhat secondary that Svedberg, in his third start in three days, gave up four goals in a 6-2 loss to Bridgeport. For the Swedish goalie, 2012-13 is akin to a year abroad, where immersion and firsthand learning of all situations are the priorities.
But unlike a foreign exchange student, Svedberg is stateside for good.
“This is what I want to do,” Svedberg said. “I want to play in the NHL. I think the best way for me is to come here, play in the American League, and work my way up.”
Last May 29, caught a goalie short after learning of Tim Thomas’s intention to sit out 2012-13, the Bruins signed Svedberg to a two-year, $2 million contract. Last season, the undrafted Svedberg drew NHL eyeballs when he backstopped Brynas to the Swedish Elite League championship.
The Bruins’ plan was to ease Svedberg into North American play in Providence. This season, Svedberg was scheduled to back up Hutchinson, the team’s third-round pick in 2008. So far, both goalies have shredded the original plan in divergent manners.
Hutchinson, who underwent surgery on both hips during the offseason, has submitted a spotty start to his third pro season. Through eight appearances, Hutchinson is 2-4-1 with a 3.02 goals-against average and an .885 save percentage. Hutchinson didn’t record his first win until last Saturday, when he stopped 24 shots in Providence’s 5-2 victory over Portland.
While the projected No. 1 goalie has yet to find his touch, Svedberg has claimed the starting job. In 16 games, Svedberg is 10-4-1 with a 2.34 GAA and a .921 save percentage. As Providence (12-8-2) tries to climb the standings, Cassidy has looked to Svedberg for stability in goal.
“We weren’t sure what we were going to get out of him,” Cassidy acknowledged. “He’s the type of guy that when the puck drops, the intangibles he brings are better than what you see in practice. He’s a guy who competes hard in the net. It shows. His numbers are pretty good.”
The Bruins need Svedberg to be a quick study. When the lockout ends, Svedberg stands to be the first Providence goalie to get the nod if injuries hit Tuukka Rask or Anton Khudobin. Given Rask’s recent history of groin ailments, depth in goal is a requirement if the Bruins want to avoid a repeat of 2011-12.
Rask injured his groin last March 3. Khudobin would have been promoted to back up Thomas. But Khudobin was out with a wrist injury. Hutchinson had to dress for two games before the Bruins imported Marty Turco from Austria.
For a European goalie, the adjustment to the AHL is not simple. In North America, the rinks are smaller. There is less real estate in the neutral zone. Players prefer dump-ins to stickhandling over the blue line. They skate in straight lines toward the net. Once they arrive at the crease, they are not friendly to goalies.
All those tweaks can throw off a European goalie’s approach. Svedberg has had to tweak his positioning to adjust to the narrower rinks. He has been leaving his crease more to play dump-ins and settle hard-arounds behind his net. The traffic and belligerence in his face have required Svedberg to track pucks more efficiently and battle the jungle of bodies.
During training camp, shooters found openings high on Svedberg. With more games and practices, Svedberg is now making himself taller to reduce the space he was once showing. Svedberg credits goaltending coach Bob Essensa for helping him refine his technique, which leans more toward the athletic than the positional.
Essensa and the Bruins don’t want Svedberg reinventing his game. They’d prefer smaller corrections to overhauls. Svedberg won a Swedish League title and an NHL contract because of his style.
“I’ve never tried it,” Svedberg said of NHL play. “But it’s the best league in the world.
“I feel comfortable with the game I have. That’s the game I would try to play in the NHL as well, just hopefully in a better way. You want to develop your game every day with all the details.
“In the big picture, I’m trying to play my game. That’s what I feel comfortable doing, no matter which level it is.”