For the second straight season, the Providence Bruins enter the Calder Cup Playoffs as the fourth seed in the Atlantic Division. They must knock off another one seed in a best-of-five first round series. They failed last season, dropping the series 3-1 to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. They face the AHL’s best regular season team this season in the Charlotte Checkers. However, the Checkers have some notable absences, and Providence has been fighting for their playoff lives since January. To quote the famous Dumb and Dumber line, “so you’re saying there’s a chance.” Here’s how the series shapes up.
Checkers Bring Plenty of Offense to Providence
Charlotte brings a ton of talent at the forward position. The Checkers had a balanced attack with three 20-goal scorers, a number that can be a little skewed in the AHL with call-ups. If you drop the plateau down to 15 goals, Charlotte has eight players who tallied at least 15. The P-Bruins have just three players who reached that number in Paul Carey, Gemel Smith, and Jordan Szwarz.
Charlotte’s attack is led up front by former New Hampshire Wildcat Andrew Poturalski. Poturalski, in his third full season with the Checkers, tallied 23 goals, 47 assists and 70 points in 72 games for a career-best season. The Checkers also have prospects Nicolas Roy, Martin Necas, and Julian Gauthier up front.
Necas in particular will be a player to watch. The 2017 12th-overall pick for the Carolina Hurricanes is a proven big game player at the age of 20. Necas tallied 18 points over 17 games in three separate World Junior Championship appearances for his native Czech Republic. He will in all likelihood be a member of the Hurricanes next season, and could cement that with a strong playoff performance.
One interesting note is Carolina called up 30-goal scorer Aleksi Saarela on Friday and returned rookie defenseman Jake Bean to Charlotte. Given Providence is facing the league’s fifth-best offense, they will take the trade off.
The offense for the P-Bruins will rely on the three 20-goal scorers mentioned, in addition to late-season signing Lee Stempniak. The equalizer and strength for Providence will be at the center position. Szwarz, Smith, and Trent Frederic can all provide offense while being assets in the defensive end.
The P-Bruins’ centers will have their work cut out for them, but it’s a group that could level the series. Providence plays a structured game and will need strong play at the pivot position to have a chance at stealing the series. Even without Saarela, the Checkers will have the edge at forward.
Providence Will Rely on Blueliners
Defense may be the one advantage for the P-Bruins heading into the series, largely because of the health and availability of the Charlotte blue line. The addition of Bean helps, but stalwart Roland McKeown is out with injury and Haydn Fleury remains in the playoff hunt with Carolina.
The Checkers still boast plenty of talent on defense. Former United States Olympian Bobby Sanguinetti is no stranger to the Calder Cup Playoffs, with 51 games of playoff experience and 406 regular season games under his belt. After Bean and McKeown, Dan Renouf was third for Charlotte in points by a defenseman. More importantly, he’s also battle tested, winning a Calder Cup with the Grand Rapids Griffins in 2017.
Charlotte is talented at every position, but what may give the P-Bruins the edge on defense is depth. The Providence blue line is as healthy as it’s been all season. Jeremy Lauzon is a playoff player. He’s skilled but has a mean streak. Lauzon also got his first taste of the NHL this season, and much like Necas, could be playing for NHL minutes next season.
For the first time all season, first rounders Urho Vaakanainen and Jakub Zboril will be healthy at the same time as AHL veteran Chris Breen. Breen should log big minutes and compliments a smaller player with skill like Vaakanainen nicely. The trio will play large roles if the P-Bruins pull off the upset.
Providence also has a player with 139 games of NHL experience and an excellent power play quarterback in Kyle Cumiskey. Cumiskey may be a third-pairing defenseman, but will be a key in this series on the man-advantage.
On paper, the goaltending battle is, well, not much of a battle. Charlotte’s Alex Nedeljkovic is a first-team All-Star and was named the league’s most outstanding goalie. On the other side, Zane McIntyre and Daniel Vladar sported identical .898 save percentages. This was despite Providence surrendering the least amount of shots-per-game and finishing sixth in goals against.
It’s no secret the P-Bruins goaltending will have to be better to win in the playoffs. McIntryre is likely to get the nod, as he did last season before getting replaced by Jordan Binnington after one start against Lehigh Valley. He’s proved he’s capable of getting hot in his four-year stint in Providence, and the Bruins will need it.
Providence is facing an uphill battle against the Checkers. Working in their favor is playing the first two games of a best-of-five at home. The P-Bruins were 24-9-4-1 on home ice this season. They were also 4-3-1 against the Checkers this season. Could they pull it off? It’s playoff hockey, of course they can.