The Providence Bruins will want to quickly put the end of 2018 behind them. They entered the month of December on a 8-1-3 run that put them back in the playoff picture, but a recent slide has them sitting seventh in the eight-team Atlantic Division. The Bruins are just 3-6-1 in their last 10 games. Perhaps the new year will bring new optimism as the team now sits a game below .500. It should be clear early into the new year if this team will have a playoff hope.
Bruins’ Upcoming Schedule Has Playoff Implications
The Bruins are almost halfway through the AHL’s 76-game schedule, with the upcoming schedule in particular working in the team’s favor. Eight out of 11 games in January are at home. At 7-3-2 and the Atlantic’s third-best home win percentage, the Dunkin Donuts Center has been kind to the Bruins.
Providence will also see a lot of the Springfield Thunderbirds in January. Five games and 10 points are up for grabs against the Thunderbirds, which sit just four points ahead of the Bruins for the division’s final playoff spot. These are games that could dictate the direction the rest of the season takes, and the Thunderbirds have been a nemesis of the Bruins. Springfield is 2-1 against Providence this season, and while the Thunderbirds nearly erased a 5-1 deficit in the third period of their Dec. 22 matchup, the Bruins hung on for the win.
P-BRUINS WIN! Despite a furious comeback attempt by Springfield, Providence gets the 5-4 victory. @MMcNeill93, @K_Kuhlman20, @JSzwarz, Cehlarik and @connorcliff28 all score goals for the P-Bruins and @danvladar stops 22 shots in the win. pic.twitter.com/Y36YuzLUMx
— Providence Bruins (@AHLBruins) December 23, 2018
While ideal for climbing back into the playoff picture, the upcoming schedule will present some hurdles. The next three weekends are of the dreaded three-in-three variety. That’s three games in three days. It’s nothing new to the AHL, but it can be tough for teams to come away with all six points. The good news for the Bruins is two of the games will be at home in each of those weekends.
They also only see the same team on back-to-back nights once. The last-place Hershey Bears proved how hard it can be to beat the same team twice last weekend, downing Providence 2-1, with a much better effort Sunday after losing the night before.
Boosts in Lineup Could Help Push
This Providence team still hasn’t been at full strength for most of the season. Injuries to the Boston Bruins and in Providence have prevented both teams from rolling out their best potential lineups. With that said, the outlook is starting to be a little more positive.
Forward Mark McNeill and defenseman Cody Goloubef are now both healthy and starting to produce. The pair was among the organization’s first offseason signings to provide some stability and a veteran presence in Providence. Goloubef returned Saturday after missing just over a month.
The offensive-minded defenseman reintroduced himself to teammates with two blasts from the point for goals. Aside from his heavy shot, Goloubef was pushing the pace before exiting the lineup. For a team that has struggled to find openings and score at even strength, a defenseman pushing play from the back end and moving the puck up ice will generate more chances.
McNeill assisted on both of Goloubef’s goals and connected with new linemate Gemel Smith for one of his own on Saturday. Chicago Blackhawks’ 2011 first round pick missed most of November and was relatively quiet as the team heated up late in the month and in early December, but looks to be back at full strength now.
He has two goals and five assists in his last five games. Coach Jay Leach may want to move him around the lineup as some of his younger forwards including Ryan Fitzgerald and Cameron Hughes have hit a bit of a slump, with Fitzgerald scoring just one goal in his last 13 games. The playmaking McNeill is the type of player who may help get those players going. Fitzgerald has been centered by Jordan Szwarz most of the season, but McNeill brings a little more skill and could provide more scoring opportunities for the young player.
McNeill and Goloubef will be two important pieces to the playoff puzzle, but there should be other reinforcements down the road. Defenseman Urho Vaakanainen has returned to the ice, playing for Finland in the World Junior Championship. He has played big minutes for the Finns in the tournament, which will let him see high-level competition before returning to Boston or Providence.
Vaakanainen returning to the Providence’s lineup is an assumption at this point, but it would provide an immediate boost. His presence would also give the team another defenseman who can move the puck quickly and seamlessly transition to offense. He impressed enough in his initial six-game stint to earn the call-up to Boston, but it’s quite possible he returns to Providence at some point or at least knocks another defenseman down the depth chart.
The end of 2018 was a bumpy ride for Providence. They’ve seemed to struggle more this season with the roster shuffling that all AHL teams go through. The way the schedule is set, we’ll have a pretty good idea one month into 2019 if the Bruins will be in the hunt for a playoff spot.