The Providence Bruins are back in the playoff hunt. They took nine of ten points before the All-Star weekend to put themselves in fourth place in the Atlantic Division. The January turnaround has saved their season which was getting close to the point where it would have been safe to write the team off, but the P-Bruins bounced back with an 8-1-1-1 record this month.
Deep Forward Group Helps P-Bruins Surge
The additions of Paul Carey and Gemel Smith have helped stretch out the forward lineup. Due to injuries and call-ups, the P-Bruins were relying heavily on younger players and a rotating door of veterans to provide offense early in the season. You may want to cross your fingers, but the roster looks to be more defined and the team is clicking.
The depth up front has been a huge reason for their recent success. Even with the call-up of Peter Cehlarik and injuries to Ryan Fitzgerald and Anders Bjork, head coach Jay Leach has found a nice balance with his forward group, starting with Jordan Szwarz, who replaced Fitzgerald at the AHL All-Star game.
Szwarz deserved the honour, who may have been overlooked by more highly-touted linemates in the last three seasons. He’s been a consistent point-producer while remaining a defensively responsible center. Recently, he’s taken on rookie wingers Cameron Hughes and Karson Kuhlman and the line has continued to produce. Kuhlman has tallied five points in his last five games playing with Szwarz.
Carey has found himself on a couple of different lines since arriving in Providence but found success playing with Trent Frederic at center and Zach Senyshyn. Carey notched a hat trick on Jan. 21 against the Hartford Wolf Pack playing with Senyshyn and Frederic.
Frederic has since been called up to Boston, but playing with Carey should benefit Senyshyn. The 2015 first-round pick has noticeably improved this year. He’s using his speed to create more offensive chances and he’s been harder on the puck, with a subtle offensive improvement. Playing with Carey, a proven playmaker at the AHL level will make Senyshyn’s game more dynamic and should help him become more involved on the offensive end.
In his first month as a P-Bruin, Gemel Smith has clicked with veteran Mark McNeill. They’re both big forwards who have been around long enough to be able to slow down an AHL game. Add Anton Blidh into the mix, possibly the most miserable player (in a good way) to play against in the Atlantic Division, and it’s a nice balance the Bruins have going right now. With a grinding fourth line of Austin Fyten, Tanner Pond, and Joona Koppanen to wear teams down, the P-Bruins are solid up front.
Finally, a Stable Blue Line in Providence
On the back end, the P-Bruins have also found stability. At one point this season, they had more defensemen who started the year in the ECHL than Providence in the lineup. The organization as a whole is now healthier on the blue line.
One smart addition from the ECHL trials was Kyle Cumiskey. Providence elected to keep Cumiskey, with 139 games of NHL experience under his belt, and signed him to an AHL contract away from the Newfoundland Growlers. He has done it all in the absence of some key defensemen. He makes smart plays in the defensive zone and has quarterbacked the power play, setting up Carey’s goal Friday night in a win over the Charlotte Checkers.
Plenty of Providence defensemen have been given NHL experience this year. Jeremy Lauzon and Connor Clifton have looked much stronger in their return to the AHL, but there may not be a more important addition than Urho Vaakanainen.
Vaakanainen appeared in six games in October before getting called up but suffered a concussion just two games into his stint in Boston. His late-December return coincided with a gold-medal run for his native Finland at the World Junior Championships. Vaakanainen logged big minutes, and the tournament provided a great opportunity for the young defenseman to bounce back quickly.
He may need to get stronger and adjust to the physical game in North America, but he’s the best defenseman the P-Bruins have with the puck on his stick and may already be the best overall decision maker on the team.
The remarkable turnaround not only has Providence sitting in a playoff spot but the second place Bridgeport Sound Tigers are within three points. The roster appears somewhat stable for the remainder of the season. Yes, there will be call-ups, but the organization is deep enough to survive the AHL when healthy. Frederic and Peter Cehlarik are the latest to receive a call, but Ryan Donato and Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson join Providence this weekend.