(Photo Credit: Providence Bruins / Flickr)

By: James Swindells | Follow me on Twitter @jimswindells68

Last night’s Game Two of the AHL’s Eastern Conference Semifinal at The AMP saw the Providence Bruins pushed to the brink of elimination just a pair of games into their postseason existence. After an incredibly successful regular season in which the P-Bruins secured their third AHL Atlantic Division crown in four years, 60 minutes of gameplay is all that potentially remains for head coach Ryan Mougenel’s squad in the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs.

With its division title in hand and coupled with a first-round bye, Providence found themselves sitting idle with only practices and an intrasquad scrimmage to keep things fresh. Meanwhile, with a late-season surge, Providence’s eventual second-round opponent, the Hartford Wolf Pack, secured a playoff berth that saw the Pack finish the last month of the regular season with 11 wins in its final 14 games. Hartford drew the Springfield Thunderbirds in their opening round best-of-three series and quickly dispatched the T-Birds with two lopsided victories.

In the series opener on Friday night in Providence, Hartford continued its winning ways as they shut down the P-Bruins in every facet of the game. Armed with a suffocating defense, the Wolf Pack clamped down on any Providence attempts to find offensive flow and attempts at shaking off 12 days of rust. Hartford’s netminder Dylan Garand had the equivalent of a night off as he turned away a meager 14 shots and recorded his first career Calder Cup Playoff shutout. Former UMass Minuteman Bobby Trivigno netted the Pack’s lone goal and secured the early series lead for Hartford.

Less than 24 hours after the completion of Game One, the two squads met once again at The AMP on Saturday night. Hartford head coach Kris Knoblauch sent Garand back in between the pipes, and Mougenel countered once again with Brandon Bussi, the lone bright spot in Game One for Providence. Bussi found himself under siege in the opener but managed to keep Hartford within range as he turned aside 31 of the 32 shots he faced.

Providence opened Game Two with a period in which they nearly equaled their shot output in Game One. Providence’s lone power play effort was a futile effort that failed to create any shots on Garand, who kept Providence’s score sheet clean for a fourth consecutive period, and Bussi matched the Garand effort with nine saves.

Hartford netted two goals on Bussi in 3:26 in the middle frame as Hartford continued its defensive mastery of the P-Bruins. Old friend Anton Blidh opened the scoring at 6:17, and Adam Clendening doubled Providence’s misery at 9:43. The Pack potted a third goal that was eventually waved off. Luke Toporowski finally solved Garand after just over 93 minutes of gameplay at 13:14 of the second stanza to get Providence within a goal heading to the third period.

Garand and his Wolf Pack teammates shut down the P-Bruins over the final 20 minutes. Providence’s only man advantage of the period equaled the dismal output of their lone PP chance in the first frame, and with Bussi pulled for the extra skater for the final 85 seconds, Garand and the Knoblauch-led Wolf Pack escaped Rhode Island’s capital city with a 2-1 victory, their fifth straight win versus Providence and a commanding two games to none series lead.

The series shifts to Connecticut for Game Three on Wednesday night at the XL Center in Hartford. If Providence hopes to extend its season and get back into this series, they will have to find solutions to Hartford’s success in keeping most of the P-Bruins’ offensive opportunities limited to perimeter chances while striving to get pucks and traffic directed toward the Wolf Pack’s net.

In Game Two, Providence had far more success in this aspect, as evidenced by the Toporowski tally in Game Two. These moments of high-danger chances have been few and far between, though, and need to become more frequent on Wednesday night if there’s to be a continuation of this series on Friday night in Game Four. Bussi has provided Providence with excellent goaltending thus far and given his teammates chances to pull out games as they have searched for offense and solutions to their season-long search for continuity with the man advantage.

Their regular season 26th ranking on the PP is the one aspect of Providence’s game that has struggled most of this season. Expecting a quick fix at this stage of the season seems unrealistic and unlikely, and their survival in Hartford will likely depend on the strength of what got them to this point: excellent goaltending, strong 5-on-5 play, an excellent PK unit, and a team that had the third best road record in the AHL. Whatever the solution is, it will need to be found quickly and twice in hostile territory if there’s any hope of returning to The AMP in Providence next Sunday for a deciding Game Five.