By: James Swindells | Follow me on Twitter @jimswindells68
The Providence Bruins, the top AHL affiliate of the Boston Bruins, returned to action on Friday night as they welcomed the Charlotte Checkers to the Amica Mutual Pavilion in Providence. The P-Bruins entered Friday’s action sitting in first place in the AHL’s Atlantic Division with a one-point edge over the Hershey Bears. Providence head coach Ryan Mougenel gave Brandon Bussi the start in the nets and was opposed by the Checkers’ Mack Guzda.
With the trade deadline of March 3rd approaching, scouts from Dallas, Anaheim, St. Louis, Ottawa, and San Jose were in attendance at The AMP. Several Providence Bruins in recent weeks have been speculated upon as potential trade targets as Boston looks to strengthen its roster for a run at a championship.
After Charlotte’s Lucas Carlsson opened the scoring at 3:19 of the opening period, it took Providence a mere eight seconds to record the equalizing goal. John Beecher took advantage of Guzda mishandling the puck behind his net and slammed the puck in behind the Charlotte netminder before he could get in position to make a play on Beecher. The Beecher tally, and the first of his four points in the game, would be the last of the opening frame but established the trend of quick response goals by both teams throughout the game.
The middle frame was a frenzy of physicality, numerous penalty calls, and a goal-scoring flurry. Mike Reilly opened things up and began the start of a five-point evening for the P-Bruins veteran defenceman. Just 61 seconds into the period, Joona Koppanen glided into the Charlotte zone and dropped a pass to Reilly at the right point, who proceeded to blast a one-timer past Gudza and give Providence their first lead at 2-1.
Providence’s lead was short-lived as the Checkers netted two goals in a 31-second span and retook the lead at 3-2. Henry Bowlby scored the Checkers’ second goal of the night 81 seconds after the Reilly goal, and Lucas Carlsson potted his second goal of the night 1:52 after Reilly’s go-ahead tally. The period, and the remainder of the game, would ebb and flow as both teams showcased breakdowns that made for an exciting game but yielded sloppy defensive efforts from both squads.
Charlotte’s Riley Nash went off for a trip at 6:23, and Anthony Bitetto followed Nash 48 seconds later as he was whistled for high-sticking. Providence found themselves the beneficiary of a 72-second 5-on-3 power play. Nash’s penalty expired, and he was returning to the Charlotte zone as Fabian Lysell went cross-ice to Georgii Merkulov at the right post, and the white-hot Russian winger tucked the puck into Guzda’s net. Merkulov’s 17th goal of the season and his ninth in his last nine games gives the former Ohio State Buckeye 16 points (10 G, 6 A) in 13 games dating back to January 22nd.
Reilly struck again as the teams played at 4-on-4 to give Providence its second lead of the game. With Charlotte’s John Ludvig and the P-Bruins’ Chris Wagner taking up residency in the penalty box, Reilly’s sixth goal of the season looked familiar to his first of the night as, this time, Oskar Steen set up Reilly for another one-time score that beat Guzda between the five-hole and sent Providence to the second intermission hanging onto a 4-3 lead.
The final 20-minute period of the night saw the Checkers mount a furious attack as they looked to close the gap in standings with Hershey and Providence. Charlotte outshot the P-Bruins 13-4 in the final frame, and their efforts would finally produce their fourth goal of the night. Former Boston Bruin Riley Nash would redirect a shot from Anthony Bitetto past Bussi to knot things up with 9:02 left in the game.
Providence native Dennis Cesana went off for Charlotte at 13:06 for a delay of game penalty that sent Providence back on the PP for the seventh time, similar to the previous two goals, and Mike Reilly delivered another one-time blast that put Providence up 5-4 with 4:51 remaining. Reilly’s third score of the night gave him his first hat trick as a professional and set up a frantic ending over the final 81 seconds of regulation.
Charlotte head coach Geordie Kinnear pulled Guzda with 1:21 left in the period, and the Checkers made their final push to send the game into overtime and secure at least a point in the standings. Defenceman Matt Kierstad beat Bussi with a one-timer from the right side of the blue line with 47 seconds left to knot the score at five apiece and sent the game to a furious finish in the overtime session.
Providence would win the faceoff to start overtime and pushed numerous waves at Guzda. Reilly sent Beecher speeding through the neutral zone on the game’s last rush and gained easy entry to the Charlotte zone. As Beecher flew down the left wing, he sent a pass to the slot area that Jakub Lauko corralled and fired the game-winner past Guzda, sending the 7769 in attendance at The AMP home happy. Lauko’s 10th goal of the season capped off multi-point nights for Reilly (3G, 2A), Beecher (1G, 4A), and Koppanen (2A). Brandon Bussi improved his record to 16-2-4-1 with a 2.31 GAA and .929 SV%.
Providence stretched its Atlantic Division lead to three points over the idle Hershey Bears and nine points over third-place Charlotte. Providence returns to action on Sunday, February 26th, with a 3 PM matinee matchup versus the Rochester Americans at The AMP.
3rd Star – Lucas Carlsson (Charlotte)
2nd Star – Jakub Lauko (Providence)
1st Star – Mike Reilly (Providence)