By: James Swindells | Follow me on Twitter @jimswindells68
The Providence Bruins, the top AHL Affiliate of the Boston Bruins, headed to Charlotte to face the Checkers in the first of a weekend two-game set at the Bojangles Coliseum. Earlier this week, there were scenarios in place where Providence could have clinched a playoff berth with help, but those failed to materialize, and the P-Bruins looked to take matters into their own hands on Saturday night.
The P-Bruins arrived in the Queen City riding a five-game winning streak. Providence overtook the Hershey Bears during their recent five-game heater and currently sits atop the AHL’s Atlantic Division. With a successful weekend in North Carolina, the P-Bruins look to keep the Checkers in the rearview mirror as Charlotte sits eight points behind Providence in third place.
Providence and Charlotte failed to connect on their only two power play opportunities throughout the opening and middle periods. Checkers netminder Mack Guzda turned aside all 13 P-Bruins shots he faced. Meanwhile, Providence’s Brandon Bussi matched Guzda’s effort and tacked on a brilliant, eye-popping glove save as he robbed the Checkers’ Cory Conacher and stopped all 19 Charlotte attempts in the opening 40 minutes.
After 40 minutes of scoreless hockey, Providence finally broke through and solved Guzda when Luke Toporowksi netted the game’s first goal. Georgii Merkulov won a puck battle deep in Providence’s zone, and the duo of Justin Brazeau and Connor Carrick worked the puck to a streaking Toporowksi. Toporowski broke in alone on Guzda and buried his chance behind the Charlotte netminder for his 12th goal of the season. Toporowski, in his first game action since an injury sidelined him on January 28th, netted his first goal since January 20th vs. Hartford.
Following the Toporowski tally, the Checkers failed to produce the equalizer after Josiah Didier was called for a slash just 21 seconds after Providence’s opening score. The P-Bruins matched the Charlotte PP effort as an opportunity to double their lead went to waste while the Checkers’ Henry Bowlby did time for a cross-check at 9:01.
The P-Bruins doubled their lead 36 seconds after Bowlby’s release from the penalty box. Shane Bowers directed a shot toward Guzda from the right faceoff circle, which Chris Wagner redirected past the Charlotte netminder for his 16th goal of the season. The assist by Bowers was his first point in ten games with Providence since being acquired in a trade with Colorado on February 25th.
Equipped with a two-goal lead, Providence wasted only ten seconds to increase the Charlotte deficit to three goals. After the faceoff following the Wagner score, the puck found its way deep into Charlotte’s defensive zone. The Checkers’ Anthony Bitetto attempted a blind pass into the slot that found the white-hot Georgii Merkulov. Merkulov blasted the errant Bitetto pass into Guzda’s net, and Providence had an insurmountable three-goal lead with 8:13 remaining in the game. Merkulov’s 22nd goal of the season gives the Bruins’ rookie prospect 14 goals in 19 games since February 1st.
Charlotte cut the Providence lead to 3-1 on Santtu Kinnunen’s seventh goal at 13:11. John Beecher went off for an interference call 42 seconds later. The P-Bruins PK unit stood tall to the task, and Charlotte’s last significant chance to cut into the Providence lead met the same fate as their three previous PP chances. Charlotte coach Geordie Kinnear pulled Guzda with 2:40 remaining, but Bussi turned aside all four shots the Checkers directed at him, and Providence clinched an AHL playoff berth.
The P-Bruins’ 3-1 victory over Charlotte clinched the franchise’s 24th playoff berth in its 31-year existence since relocating from Portland, Maine, to Providence in 1992. Providence joined the Hershey Bears, Toronto Marlies, Calgary Wranglers, and the Coachella Valley Firebirds as the only teams to secure a postseason bid in their quest for the Calder Cup. Over the season’s final ten games, the Ryan Mougenel-led P-Bruins will look to build upon a successful season by securing a first-round bye and an AHL Atlantic Division championship.
BLACK N’ GOLD THREE STARS OF THE GAME
3RD STAR – Chris Wagner (Providence), 1 goal (16th), 0 assists
2ND STAR – Luke Toporowski (Providence), 1 goal (12th), 0 assists
1ST STAR – Brandon Bussi (Providence), 30 saves, 19th Win, 2.31 GAA, .928 SV%