Providence Could Add New Chapter to Playoff Rivalry

The Providence Bruins took four of six points for a second consecutive weekend. The weekend started with an Austin Czarnik hat trick in a 5-3 win over the Rochester Americans, followed by a road loss to the Atlantic Division-leading Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Goaltender Zane McIntyre played a big role in closing out the weekend right with a 44-save performance in a 4-1 win over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. With 12 games remaining on the schedule, there’s little doubt the team will make the playoffs. The win put Providence 11 points clear of fifth-place Bridgeport.

The P-Bruins are tied for second in the Atlantic, 11 points behind Lehigh Valley. Providence will want to stay clear of fourth place Charlotte and possibly wrestle home ice away from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. They’re currently tied in points with the Penguins, with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton having played one fewer game. It’s that time of year to look at the playoff picture and how a potential Calder Cup run would pan out.

P-Bruins and Pesky Penguins Rivalry

P-Bruins fans may cringe at the sight of a likely playoff match-up with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Penguins have been the playoff nemesis of Providence too often. The AHL playoffs, much like the NHL, play within the division in the playoffs and the two teams have met in the playoffs in four of the last five seasons. The P-Bruins had lost the previous three playoff meetings with the Penguins until a 3-2 series win last year. Wilkes-Barre Scranton victories included a 2013 seven-game series in the second round, in which the P-Bruins squandered a 3-0 series lead. With both teams holding a four-point lead over fourth place Charlotte and games in hand, the rivalry once again seems inevitable.

Austin Czarnik Bruins
Boston Bruins forward Austin Czarnik (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite the history, the AHL is a league that by nature sees a lot of roster turnover. Looking at this year’s match-up between the two, the P-Bruins should feel good about a series with the Penguins. They lead this season’s series, 2-0-1-1. The battle for home ice will likely go until the end of the season, with two games at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton remaining in the final 12. Last season, the P-Bruins were the lower seed, but hosted the first two games as the AHL schedules based on travel. The higher seed would host the remaining three games of the first round best of five series.

Importance of home ice in playoff hockey is debatable, but the Penguins are tied for the league’s highest win percentage on home ice with a .750 win percentage. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is averaging more goals per game with 3.22 to the P-Bruins 2.98, but recent moves made by the Bruins organization to increase depth gives the P-Bruins an advantage up front. It leaves a handful of forwards that have been on the cusp of the NHL on the Providence roster, assuming health. That includes Czarnik, who has become dominant over the last 10 games with eight goals and six assists in that stretch. Rookie Ryan Fitzgerald has proven he can produce with the top line with five points in his last five games. That gives the P-Bruins the ability to bump a dynamic playmaker like Kenny Agostino down to the second line.

This Season’s Rivalry Comparison

Tom Kostopoulos Flames
Tom Kostopoulos with Calgary (Icon SMI)

The Penguins are led in scoring by rookie Daniel Sprong, who currently sits at second in the AHL for goals scored by a rookie with 23. Sprong has a stat line of 23-25-48 in 52 games. The Penguins got a boost mid-season when 39-year-old forward Tom Kostopoulos returned to the lineup. The veteran has spent at least part of 11 different seasons in his career with Wilkes/Barre-Scranton and can still contribute offensively at the AHL level. If Pittsburgh finishes the season healthy and figures out a set fourth line at the NHL level, it’s possible another reinforcement at forward would head to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Comparing the defensive groups on each team is interesting. The Penguins have been getting it done with a handful of AHL veterans that have been in other organizations, including Kevin Czuzcman, Chris Summers, Jarred Tinordi, and Frank Corrado. The P-Bruins are a little younger and have more upside. They will rely on rookies Jakub Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon, and Emil Johanssen. Captain Tommy Cross is by far the veteran of the group as the only P-Bruin remaining from the 2013 collapse against the Penguins.

Goaltending will be an interesting matchup. While it seems like Wilkes/Barre Scranton will go with Tristan Jarry, the P-Bruins will have a decision on their hands. Jordan Binnington, on loan from St. Louis, ranks third in the league in goals against average and save percentage (2.02, .927). Zane McIntyre is Bruins property and has recovered from a poor start, but still struggles with consistency. Jarry seems to have lost the backup role in Pittsburgh to Casey DeSmith for now and will be hungry to remain in the picture for the organization.

Avoiding the fourth-place spot in the division and beating out the Penguins for second is the goal for the remainder of the season in Providence. Finishing in fourth would mean meeting the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. The Phantoms have been one of the league’s elite all season with only 16 regulation losses in 66 games. If the P-Bruins could put the Phantoms off for a round and give key young players some experience, it may benefit them in what will be a tough match-up. Unless Providence or Wilkes-Barre/Scranton play uncharacteristically poorly down the stretch, the playoff rivals appear destined to meet once again.