With 12 games remaining in the regular season, it looked like the Providence Bruins were set to play the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs. The P-Bruins had a game in hand and a four-point lead on the Charlotte Checkers. The first-place Lehigh Valley Phantoms, one of the league’s best all season, seemed out of reach at 11 points away. That all changed as Charlotte went 9-0-1-0 down the stretch. The P-Bruins finished fourth in the Atlantic Division and will face Lehigh Valley in the best-of-five first round. It isn’t time to hit the panic button, as the P-Bruins didn’t play poorly down the stretch and will face the Phantoms with a full complement of players.
P-Bruins Facing Tough Test
What gives the P-Bruins hope immediately in the 1-versus-4 matchup is the fact the Atlantic was one of the toughest divisions in the AHL this season. Regardless of how it’s broken down (the AHL uses win percentage in the standings as some Pacific teams play 68 games instead of 76), the P-Bruins are among the top eight teams in the league. The Atlantic winner may emerge from the division battle as a favorite for the Calder Cup. That’s not to say it will be an easy task. The Phantoms were 4-1-1-0 record against the P-Bruins in the regular season.
Lehigh Valley ranks second in the league with 3.42 goals scored per game. If there’s an advantage the Phantoms have over Providence, it’s a balanced attack that has some proven AHL veterans, Phil Varone was named the League’s Most Valuable Player this week. Varone is a veteran of 368 AHL games and brings with him a group of proven forwards.
While lacking size, the Phantoms rely on Greg Carey and the speedy Chris Conner for secondary scoring. The 34-year-old Conner has managed to rack up 180 NHL appearances but has played most of his career in the AHL. Despite his age and 5-foot-7 frame, he’ll put pressure on the Providence defense. Size may have played a factor in Conner not sticking with an NHL team, but it hasn’t diminished his productivity at the lower level.
Mike Vechionne and Danick Martel are another pair of younger, smaller forwards that will present problems for the P-Bruins defense. Providence’s roster is capable and will need to play a heavier game than the Phantoms in this series. If the series goes the way of a typical tight, physical playoff battle, the P-Bruins are more well-equipped up front. If it turns into a shootout, Lehigh Valley has the advantage.
This will be a big series for the Providence forwards that bring size and secondary scoring. Trent Frederic, Colby Cave, Colton Hargrove, and Peter Cehlarik will need to put pressure on the Lehigh Valley defense and win physical battles with the smaller, skilled players on the Phantoms. Coach Jay Leach can dictate the matchup with the P-Bruins top line of Austin Czarnik, Jordan Szwarz, and Ryan Fitzgerald as Providence has home ice for the first two games of the series.
Providence Needs to Pressure Phantoms
It’s a nice luxury to be able to put out a line with one of the league’s most prolific forwards in Czarnik, an excellent two-way player in Szwarz, and the young Fitzgerald who’s played his best hockey down the stretch. Leach should be able to gain an advantage in games one and two with that line. There are some within the league who see this as a more favorable matchup for the P-Bruins than a potential date with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton would have been.
FWIW, a Springfield player told me after today's game that he believes heavier Wilkes-Barre/Scranton would be the tougher first round matchup for PBs: 'That team's built for the postseason'
— Mark Divver (@MarkDivver) April 15, 2018
The Phantoms boast a pair of AHL veterans on the blue line known for their offensive abilities. T.J. Brennan possesses a heavy shot and is consistently among the top point-getters for defensemen. Will O’Neil isn’t far behind in terms of offensive instincts. The P-Bruins’ forwards will need to attack the offensive zone and make the skilled defenseman play in their own zone. If Providence can keep the puck in the offensive zone, it could exploit a weakness of the offensive-minded duo while neutralizing their offensive game.
Lehigh Valley could be looking at a potential boost to the blue line. Reports have Samuel Morin and Philippe Myers both close to returning from injury. The 6-foot-5 Myers has struggled with a groin injury while appearing in 50 games for the Phantoms this season. He’s seen as a potential shut-down defenseman. Morin, listed at 6-foot-6, has been hit hard by injuries this season, appearing in only 15 games for Lehigh Valley and two for the Flyers. The 2013 first round pick, No. 11 overall, would provide a huge boost to the Phantoms if healthy. If the two young guns appear in the lineup, it puts more importance on Providence’s ability to control the puck and put pressure on the two prospects returning from injury.
In net, the Phantoms boast a player that’s no stranger to the Calder Cup playoffs. Dustin Tokarski backstopped the 2012 Norfolk Admirals to the title. Tokarski went 12-2 with a 1.46 goals against average and .944 save percentage. Alex Lyon is no slouch as a second option, the second-year pro and former Yale Bulldog was 16-8-2 with a 2.75 GAA, and .913 save percentage. While Tokarski has an impressive Calder Cup run under his belt, neither goalie is among the league’s elite this season. One will have to emerge and play well enough to steal one of the first two games in Providence. A road win is crucial in the shortened first round best-of-five.
Providence has a legitimate chance of knocking off the top seed much like they did in the first round against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season. The series has the league’s second-best offense in goals per game with Lehigh Valley against the best in goals against with Providence. Ultimately, if Providence wins the series it will be because they won the physical battles and made life difficult for the Phantom’s skill players. It will be a fun series that unfortunately will only go five games at the most.
A life-long follower of the game of hockey. Communications experience with the AHL’S Portland Pirates, and a former coach at the college club level. Covering the Providence Bruins and prospects.