By: James Swindells | Follow me on Twitter @jimswindells68
The Providence Bruins, the top AHL affiliate of the Boston Bruins, has been sitting idle this past week after clinching the AHL’s Atlantic Division crown on the final day of the regular season. The 7-3 victory over the Springfield Thunderbirds on Sunday, April 16th, at The AMP allowed the P-Bruins to leapfrog the idle Hershey Bears, claiming their 98th point, and finish with a 44-18-8-2 record and locking up their third Atlantic Division crown in the past four seasons. Providence claimed a bye during the AHL’s opening-round best-of-three playoff series along with the division title.
Providence, led by head coach Ryan Mougenel spent the week preparing for a matchup with either the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, Springfield Thunderbirds, or Hartford Wolf Pack. As the opening round series played out, Hartford swept Springfield with convincing 6-1 and 7-1 victories over the T-Birds. Hartford’s standing as the #5 seed and the lowest remaining seed cemented a second-round meeting with the P-Bruins.
The P-Bruins and Wolf Pack met ten times during the AHL regular season, with Providence posting a 4-6 record vs. Hartford. Three of the six P-Bruins’ losses came in overtime, and they have lost the final three matchups versus the Pack. Providence stumbled through April, finishing with a 4-3 record, while Hartford, led by head coach Kris Knoblauch, comes into their second-round meeting with Providence with 12 victories in their last 14 games.
The best-of-five series starts with Games One and Two on April 28th and 29th at The AMP in Providence. The series moves to the XL Center for Games Three and Four (if necessary) on May 3rd and 5th. If the five-game set goes the distance, the deciding tilt will be played at The AMP on Sunday, May 7th. The Wolf Pack / P-Bruins series winner faces the victor of the other Atlantic Division Semifinal between the Charlotte Checkers and Hershey Bears.
In the 10-game season series with Hartford, Providence was led in scoring by Vinni Lettieri (4G, 3A) and Jack Ahcan (2G, 5A), who posted seven points each. Marc McLaughlin (3G, 3A), Justin Brazeau (2G, 3A), and Connor Carrick (1G, 4A) were also key contributors in the season series. Mougenel has netminders Kyle Keyser (13-6-2, 2.79 GAA, .900 SV%) and Brandon Bussi (22-5-4, 2.40 GAA, .924 SV%) at his disposal in the series; Bussi played in only one game vs. Hartford, a 4-3 OT loss on January 22nd, while Keyser went 2-2-1. Providence has been led most of the season by the strong netminding of the Bussi/Keyser tandem and will lean heavily on the duo if they wish to dispatch Hartford and advance to the Atlantic Division Finals.
Meanwhile, Hartford has gone with the pairing of Louis Domingue and Dylan Garand (13-14-3, 3.01 GAA, .894 SV%) in all but one game for Knoblauch this season. Domingue, an 11-year veteran, posted a 22-12-8 record with a 2.51 GAA and a .911 SV%. In the 2022 NHL playoffs with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Domingue took over for an injured Casey DeSmith in the Penguins’ first-round matchup with the New York Rangers in Game One. Behind Domingue, the Pens roared to a 3-1 series lead. Domingue was eventually benched in favor of Tristan Jarry in Game Seven as the Rangers completed their series comeback with a 4-3 overtime win.
Currently, Hartford is without captain and leading scorer Jonny Brodzinski (21G, 27A), who is on recall with the New York Rangers. But the Pack has the quartet of Turner Elson (3G, 6A), Zac Jones (3G, 6A), Ryan Carpenter (3G, 5A), and Bobby Trivigno (1G, 7A), who all have wreaked havoc in the ten games vs. Providence this season. Trade deadline addition and old friend Anton Blidh has also been a going concern down the stretch for Hartford, compiling 15 points in 19 games.
Providence looks to continue to get strong output from rookie Georgii Merkulov (24G, 31A), who stepped up his production considerably, while Vinni Lettieri (23G, 26A) missed 24 games dealing with two separate injury bouts. Mougenel will look to Connor Carrick (6G, 38A) and Jack Ahcan (5G, 31A) to provide strong postseasons on the blue line along with the veteran duo of Mike Reilly and Anton Stralman.
As Providence is a developmental ground for prospects inside the Boston Bruins organization, it remains to be seen what kind of playing time recent additions to the P-Bruins roster will get for Mougenel. Since late March, Providence has added forwards Brett Harrison (2021 3rd Round), Trevor Kuntar (2020 3rd Round), Matthew Poitras (2022 2nd Round), defencemen Frederic Brunet (2022 5th Round), Mason Lohrei (2020 2nd Round), Jonathan Myrenberg (Vancouver’s 2021 5th Round) and goaltender Reid Dyck (2022 6th Round).
Lohrei played in a handful of games down the stretch for Mougenel and seems the likeliest to see the most action. Of the remaining group, Brunet looked very confident and comfortable in his only game while posting two assists, and Harrison had a solid outing in his one game. Most of the other signings will get quality developmental time with skills coaches.
As with all playoff series, the outcome is decided by goaltending and special teams. Providence has been one of the AHL’s strongest teams all year with their 5-on-5 play. The P-Bruins PK unit ranked 8th in the AHL with an 82.2% kill rate. The PP unit finished 26th with a 17.5% success rate and was mired in the AHL’s bottom third nearly all season. Sustaining the regular season success of 5-on-5 play and the PK will only help to improve Providence’s chances of postseason success. The PP unit will need to enhance its regular season output if the P-Bruins are to make a long run toward a Calder Cup championship.
It remains to be seen whether the 12-day layoff will affect Providence negatively or if the extended rest will be beneficial to their preparation for the beginning of their playoff season versus a white-hot Hartford squad looking to continue its late-season magic. Hartford provides a stern test for the P-Bruins in their quest to bring the Calder Cup back to the capital city for the first time since 1999. Personally, I like the depth in net for Providence to be a factor in the series and look for a healthy Vinni Lettieri to terrorize his former club. Also, the depth and veteran experience on the P-Bruins blueline will be a determining factor.
PREDICTION: Providence defeats Hartford 3 games to 2.