Providence Bruins Gain Some Separation in Playoff Race

The Providence Bruins hit the road with a chance for some separation in the Atlantic Division playoff race. It wasn’t perfect, but Providence is now five points clear of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for the Atlantic Division’s final playoff spot. The Penguins entered the weekend sitting just four points behind Providence with a game in-hand. They still have the game in-hand, but the P-Bruins gained a point. While Boston has needed some help due to injuries, Providence continues to inch closer to solidifying a playoff position despite providing the reinforcements.

P-Bruins Pick Up Road Points Despite Departures

Providence took care of business at home, winning three of their last four, all at home, before hitting the road. Still, the P-Bruins would have been looking at a tight playoff race without the 5-2 win Friday over the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and a 2-1 overtime loss to the Penguins Saturday. They capped off the road trip with another point in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Laval Rocket.

The Bruins will gladly take four out of six points considering they entered the week without the hot hand of Paul Carey, as the veteran earned a well-deserved call-up. Carey had eight goals, and two assists in his last ten games. His contributions were missed for a team that posted inconsistent results during that 10 game stretch, going 4-4-1-1 and averaging 2.5 goals per game.

Carey left the P-Bruins with a nice parting gift, notching the overtime winner in a 4-3 victory a week ago Saturday over the Hershey Bears. Carey took a Connor Clifton feed, faked a shot to freeze the Hershey defenders and buried the winner from the high slot. It was a patient play P-Bruins fans have become accustomed to seeing since the AHL vet was acquired in January. The arrivals of Carey and Gemel Smith brought consistent offensive firepower to the Providence lineup.

Former Quinnipiac Bobcat Connor Clifton has added offense to his game. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

There was also the departure on the back end in Clifton. The man who set up Carey’s overtime goal, Clifton, was recalled by Boston. The former Quinnipiac Bobcat has made huge strides in his second professional season, making a highlight-reel play that resulted in another Carey goal last Friday against Hershey.

When Clifton began his pro career last season, “highlight reel” wasn’t what came to mind when describing his play. Regardless, his rookie season was enough to earn a two-way contract. He’s topped that season in 2018-19 by improving his ability to move the puck and create offense. Clifton headed back to Boston after appearing in ten games earlier this season.

Inching Closer to a Playoff Spot in Providence

With injuries in Boston creating the need for reinforcements, Providence surviving the late-season road trip with most of the available points is huge. It’s enough to start thinking this is a team destined for playoff hockey. If they ever get to full strength, which is a big if, they have the potential to surprise the division’s higher seeds and make a deep run.

It’s hard to recall a team going through so much change in one season, even for a minor league affiliate. There’s been the traditional call-ups and injuries, but Boston has also tried a number of combinations to try to fill out the top nine forward positions. The P-Bruins even withstood two players early in the season deciding to return to Europe in Martin Bakos and Jan Kovar. It’s been a different season for sure.

With the constant change noted, it shouldn’t come as a shock that this team found a way to go out and get the points it needed. Peter Cehlarik returned to the lineup and immediately helped break Zach Senyshyn’s 14-game goalless drought. Senyshyn went to the net, and Cehlarik won a loose puck and found him for the first goal Friday. Cehlarik added a goal in the game, making sure the loss of Carey didn’t lead to a dropoff at the top of the lineup.

Credit is deserved for 36-year-old veteran Lee Stempniak for adding two goals of his own against Lehigh Valley after a demotion back to Providence. His name was tossed around even earlier in the season, but he likely joined late-season hoping to make it back to the NHL club. If that doesn’t happen, Stempniak’s effort in Providence can’t be questioned, and he’d be a huge piece for a playoff run.

Lee Stempniak
Lee Stempniak (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

The AHL trade deadline move for defenseman Stuart Percy also paid dividends this week. Percy provides a reliable presence, with 327 games of league experience. He picked up a pair of assists against Lehigh Valley for his first points in a P-Bruins sweater, and then added a goal in Laval. While Providence wasn’t rolling out it’s best defensive lineup without Clifton and injuries to Urho Vaakanainen, Chris Breen, Kyle Cumiskey, and Jeremy Lauzon; Percy played some big minutes playing with a younger collection of defenseman.

Despite the changes, the P-Bruins earned an important four points this week. The trade deadline move to bolster the blue line signified the organization is trying to compete at both levels. The organizational depth at forward is enough to keep the team solid up front, especially once Boston is back at full strength. If the blue line gets to full strength, it’s exciting to think about how good this team could be. The P-Bruins have a quick turnaround, returning home to face the Belleville Senators Friday night.