By: James Swindells | Follow me on Twitter @jimswindells68
As 2022 and the AHL’s third month of play came to a close, the Providence Bruins, the top AHL affiliate of the Boston Bruins, looked to end December positively. Providence started December with a three-game winning streak but has since posted mediocre results with a 1-2-2 mark. Coming out of the Christmas break, the P-Bruins headed to Pennsylvania for a three-game stretch with a matchup versus the Wilkes/Barre-Scranton Penguins and Providence’s first two meetings of the season against Atlantic Division and AHL-leading Hershey Bears.
WEDNESDAY AT HERSHEY
Providence and Hershey are mirror images in more than just the AHL’s Atlantic Division standings. Each team has seen its success over the season’s first three months built on superior goaltending by the AHL’s two best netminders. Providence’s Brandon Bussi has been stellar since his recall from the ECHL’s Maine Mariners, posting a 9-1-3 record with a 2.14 GAA and AHL-leading .936 SV%. Hershey’s Hunter Shepard has a 7-0-2 record, an AHL-leading 1.85 GAA, and a .931 SV%. Both would get the opportunity to showcase their skills in the first meeting of the season between the AHL’s top two teams.
Both teams mimic each other in how they have won games by demonstrating superiority over their opponents with very strong 5-on-5 play. While possessing a robust even-strength presence, each team has struggled mightily with the man advantage. Providence ranks 31st in the AHL, and Hershey ranks 28th in the league. Meanwhile, both squads possess average penalty kill squads, which hold down middle-of-the-pack rankings. Not exactly where you would expect the top two teams in the “A” to rank based on their records, but with extraordinary goaltending and a sound structure, both teams have found their recipes to success.
As expected from the best teams in the AHL, the game would be a slog offensively, as both teams utilized their strengths throughout the game. Bussi and Shepard got caught up in a game of oneupmanship as both teams struggled to find a way to solve either goalie. Neither team improved upon their struggling power play numbers as they combined to go 0-for-9 with the man advantage.
The early stages of the opening period saw both teams failing to convert on opportunities with the man advantage. Hershey had three chances to grab an early lead, but Providence’s PK unit stood to the task and kept the Bears off the scoreboard. The P-Bruins first chance was an abbreviated power play that produced only one shot on Shepard by Justin Brazeau. The goalies stood tall amid solid scoring chances, and Bussi received some help courtesy of a post.
After killing two Jakub Lauko penalties in the span of 4:35, Providence surrendered the game’s only goal after losing possession of the puck on an attempted clear of their defensive zone. From Bussi’s right, Jake Massie found Mike Vecchione uncovered in the slot and proceeded to rip a wrist shot that beat Bussi to his stick side. Vecchione’s 12th goal at 12:59 gave Hershey all the scoring they needed as the remaining 47 minutes shifted the attention back to the AHL’s two leading netminders.
Shepard’s next opportunity to shine came after a Julian Napravnik penalty in the last minute of the first period and a tripping call to Shane Gersich 41 seconds into the middle period. Providence playing with a two-man advantage, worked the puck deftly around the Bears’ zone, and Georgii Merkulov sent a pass through Shepard’s crease that found Vinni Lettieri undefended. Shepard, moving laterally left to right, stonewalled Lettieri’s point-blank chance with a nice pad save as Providence failed to take advantage of its third power play of the game.
Joey Abate finally put a puck behind Shepard at 8:54 of the second period, but the goal would be called back as Abate played the puck with a high stick. The period ended with some physical play as Chris Wagner was assessed a match penalty for a check to the head on Connor McMichael. Hershey’s Mason Morelli took exception to Wagner’s actions and instigated a fight with Wagner. When the dust settled, Providence headed to another power play with 4:51 left in the second period. Shepard stopped the lone shot he faced, and Hershey went to intermission clinging to a 1-0 lead.
Providence closed out the game by failing to convert on their last two power play opportunities. Their best threat of the period came with Dylan McIlrath off for holding at 10:57, and Vinni Lettieri was victimized by Shepard once again. Shepard stopped Lettieri’s shot from the top of the far faceoff circle, and Providence’s final chance to solve Shepard came with Bussi pulled for an extra attacker with 1:51 to go. Hershey stood their ground, surrendered no shots, and secured their fifth consecutive victory.
Brandon Bussi and Hunter Shepard both faced 22 shots in the game. Bussi’s record fell to 9-2-3-1, and he stopped 21 of 22 shots (.955 SV%). The loss dropped second-place Providence eight points behind Hershey in the Atlantic Division. Providence and Hershey played before a sellout crowd of 10,515 at the Giant Center.
3rd Star – Brandon Bussi (Providence)
2nd Star – Mike Vecchione (Hershey)
1st Star – Hunter Shepard (Hershey)
FRIDAY AT WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON
Providence headed to Scranton looking to avenge a 2-1 loss to the Penguins at The AMP on October 23rd. Brandon Bussi would get his second straight start for the P-Bruins as Dustin Tokarski (8-5-4-1) started in net for the Penguins. Tokarski went into Friday’s game ranked third among AHL netminders with a 2.12 GAA.
Once again, Providence found themselves in an early hole when they were assessed a too many men penalty at 6:03, and with the penalty ticking off its final seconds, Sam Houde beat Bussi to give the Penguins a 1-0 with 12:13 remaining in the first period.
Scranton fell victim to a too-many-men penalty at 9:26, and the beleaguered Providence power play went to work. The P-Bruins broke an 0-for-20 drought as Georgii Merkulov scored Providence’s first PP goal since December 16th. Merkulov slammed home the rebound of a Chris Wagner shot from the slot that erased Scranton’s one-goal lead. The two teams traded off failed PP chances to close out the period and went to their respective dressing rooms knotted at one apiece.
Providence worked some power play magic for the second straight time when Jack St. Ivany went off for slashing at 8:03. This time, it was Mike Reilly that beat Tokarski on the man advantage. Reilly took a pass by Jack Ahcan across the blue line, ripped a one-timer that found its way through netfront traffic, and gave the P-Bruins its first lead of the night at 2-1.
Providence’s Samuel Asselin would be assessed an extra minor penalty for his part in a scrum with the Penguins’ Sean Josling at 11:13. The P-Bruins PK unit killed the Asselin call and held serve until Valtteri Puustinen scored the equalizer with 1:29 left in the middle stanza. Scranton gained an easy exit from the Pens’ zone and entrance into the Providence zone. Corey Andonovski pulled up inside the Providence blue line and sent the puck cross-ice to Puustinen. Puustinen fired a tough angle shot that found its way through Bussi and evened things up, leaving the final 20 minutes to determine the night’s victor.
Providence’s PK unit successfully killed off a JD Greenway roughing call to start the third period, and 60 seconds after Greenway vacated the penalty box, the P-Bruins recaptured the lead. Connor Carrick took a pass across the blue line from Jack Ahcan and one-timed a shot that beat Tokarski as he struggled to catch sight of the puck through traffic. Carrick’s third goal of the season held while Bussi fell under siege as the Pens fought to tie the game at three.
Oskar Steen rewarded Bussi’s efforts with the game-winner at 17:11 and extended Providence’s lead to 4-2. Steen’s sixth goal of the season resulted from a 2-on-1 with Vinni Lettieri. Lettieri carried the puck to Tokarski’s net, as Tokarski and defenceman Colin Swoyer committed to him; Lettieri slid the puck to a wide-open Steen, Steen quickly deposited the puck into the undefended cage. Scranton pulled Tokarski for an extra attacker with 1:45 left and managed to close the gap to 4-3 on Puustinen’s second goal of the night. Providence withstood the late Scranton charge, emerged with the win, and snapped a season-long four-game losing streak.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton outshot the P-Bruins 39-27. Brandon Bussi snapped a two-game losing streak as he stopped 37 of 39 shots (.949 SV%) and improved to 9-2-3-1 with a 2.13 GAA (2nd in AHL) and a .936 SV% (1st in AHL). Oskar Steen (1G, 2A) and Georgii Merkulov (1G, 1A) had multi-point games. An announced crowd of 5482 attended Friday’s P-Bruins/Pens game at Mohegan Sun Arena.
3rd Star – Georgii Merkulov (Providence)
2nd Star – Valtteri Puustinen (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton)
1st Star – Oskar Steen (Providence)
SATURDAY AT HERSHEY
Providence closed out their year-end three-game road trip with a return trip to Hershey for a New Year’s Eve tilt at the Giant Center. Waiting for the P-Bruins again was Bears’ netminder Hunter Shepard fresh off his shutout win vs. Providence on Wednesday night. Providence head coach Ryan Mougenel started veteran goalie Keith Kinkaid; Kinkaid (4-4-3) looked to rebound from his previous three starts in which he gave up five goals in each game.
Things got off to a rocky start for Kinkaid as he surrendered a goal to Hershey’s Ethen Frank just 27 seconds after the opening puck drop. Mike Sgarbossa drove the slot inside the Providence zone on a Mike Vecchione pass. Sgarbossa pushed a backhand shot on Kinkaid that squirted loose in the crease, and Frank pushed the puck past the prone Kinkaid to open the scoring. Another quick, early deficit for the P-Bruins, who have faced their fair share of slow starts of late.
Providence tightened things up defensively following Frank’s goal and killed a Joey Abate roughing penalty midway through the first period. On the first possession in Hershey’s zone after the Abate penalty, Luke Toporowski took the puck on a tour of the offensive zone and unleashed a backhander from the blue line that made its way through Shepard and put Providence on the score sheet.
The opening period ended with both teams killing off tripping calls to Georgii Merkulov and Matt Strome. Providence survived a bumpy start and, having finally solved Shepard, headed to the first intermission tied with Hershey at one. Providence found more answers to the Shepard riddle in the second period, but Nick Wolff started a series of seven Hershey power plays over the final 40 minutes. Wolff went off for tripping at 5:46, and Kinkaid turned away all three shots he faced. While Kinkaid faced a barrage of 19 Bears shots in the middle period, Shepard faced a scant four Providence shots.
The P-Bruins made the most of their four shots and scored two goals during the period. Jakub Lauko won a puck battle on the wall, and his shot from the goal line found daylight over Shepard’s right shoulder, and Providence grabbed the lead a minute past the midway point of the game. Two minutes after Lauko’s fourth goal of the season, Marc McLaughlin scored his fourth of the season, and Providence opened up a 3-1 lead.
McLaughlin’s goal came on a delayed penalty to Hershey’s Jake Massie. Massie hauled down Georgii Merkulov as Shepard turned away a Toporowski shot. Toporowski’s shot rebounded to McLaughlin at the faceoff dot, and McLaughlin deposited the puck past Shepard, who was contending with the downed Merkulov inside the crease.
Hershey cut the Providence lead to 3-2 on Ethen Frank’s second goal of the game. Frank’s power play score came after Abate returned to the penalty box for a slashing call at 15:06, and Frank’s goal followed 16 seconds into the Hershey man advantage. Penalties to Mike Reilly and Merkulov closed out the middle period, and Kinkaid turned away all seven shots he faced on Hershey’s two power plays.
Providence continued its parade to the penalty box in the third period as Lauko took a hooking penalty at 4:16 and was ejected from the game for abuse of the game officials. Hershey evened the score at three with a power-play goal by Kevin O’Neil at 5:39, and Providence returned the favor when Chris Wagner scored the game-winner on a power-play goal at 7:05.
Wagner would be instrumental down the stretch as he had one remarkable shift after another in huge PK situations and won key faceoffs as Providence fought off a furious charge by Hershey. Kinkaid turned aside 28 of 30 shots he faced over the last 40 minutes, and the P-Bruins trimmed Hershey’s Atlantic Division lead to four points.
Hershey outshot the P-Bruins 41-21. Keith Kinkaid stopped 38 of 41 shots (.927 SV%) and moved his record to 5-4-3 with a 3.45 GAA and a .907 SV% as he ended a personal three-game losing streak. Georgii Merkulov (2A) had his 2nd consecutive multi-point game. Luke Toporowski had a multi-point night with a goal and an assist. With their 3-for-11 PP output in the Keystone state, Providence’s PP ranking moved to 29th in the AHL at 15.0%. The PK unit killed 15 of 18 (83.3%) power plays vs. Hershey and Scranton and improved to 14th in the AHL at 81.1%. Providence snapped Hershey’s five-game winning streak in front of an announced crowd of 9912 at the Giant Center. The P-Bruins return to play as they finish their eight-game road trip with two games against the Bridgeport Islanders on January 4th and 7th. Providence returns to The AMP on January 8th versus the Utica Comets for a matinee matchup, and the P-Bruins welcome Todd Angilly to Providence as he performs the national anthem prior to the 3 PM puck drop.
3rd Star – Mike Sgarbossa (Hershey)
2nd Star – Ethen Frank (Hershey)
1st Star – Chris Wagner (Providence)
Providence Bruins Home Game Ticket Information
If you would like to attend 2022-23 Providence Bruins regular season home games at the Amica Mutual Pavilion, fans can choose from Black Level (20 games), White Level (10 games), or FlexTix Season Memberships. To become a member and reserve seats, please visit providencebruins.com/memberships or contact CJ Tsoumakas at 401.680.4738 or email@example.com.
Single-game tickets can be purchased at the Providence Bruins’ official website at providencebruins.com.
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Also, if any Boston or Providence Hockey fans want to watch the NHL Bruins’ top minor-pro affiliate in action, please go to theahl.com and get an affordable AHLTV package that suits your viewing needs. You can access every team in the AHL in the regular season and playoffs for $104.99, Full AHL regular season access with no playoffs for $84.99, or you can pay monthly for only $22.99, and there’s single-day access for only $7.99.
AHLTV also offers individual team packages of $64.99 for single-team Home and Away games in the regular season, $44.99 for the single-team away games, and finally, $44.99 to watch your team play at home for the upcoming regular season.