By Eric Converse
With the Boston Bruins missing the playoffs this season, all hope for a Bruins championship this spring is on the minor league affiliate in Providence. The P-Bruins enter the 2015 Calder Cup playoffs as a lower seed in the 6th spot in the eastern conference, but the additions of David Pastrnak and a rejuvenated Ryan Spooner can make this team play more like a top seed. They are set to face-off against their rivals, the Hartford Wolf Pack.
The Wolfpack are led by the offense of AHL veteran, and former P-Bruins player, Chris Bourque, with 29 goals and 27 assists. This small, but shifty forward can dominate opponents with his underrated shot and slick play making abilities. Center-man Oscar Lindberg and right flank Danny Kristo will make the lives of the Providence defense core difficult in this series. Lindberg is also described as a big game player by Hockey’s Future. Hartford has significant scoring depth below their top scorers, which places them in the top 10 in the league for goals for.
Their defense core is led offensively by Conor Allen with 11 goals and 23 assists. Mathew Brodie is their best all around defense-men who still produces offensively, but also leads the team with a +11 plus/minus. Dylan McIlrath is a sizeable, tough, and fierce defense-man, who makes space tight in the Hartford zone for Providence forwards. As a whole, Hartford is average defensively.
Hartford’s leading goaltending tandem consists of rookie Mackenzie Skapski and mid-season signing/ AHL veteran Yann Danis. Neither goaltender is the clear cut start, so it will be interesting to see which direction the Wolf-Pack go in.
The Providence Bruins are led by the offense of David Pastrnak, Ryan Spooner, Alexander Khoklhlachev, and Justin Florek. Key goal scoring will also come from Rob Flick and AHL veteran Colin Stuart. This team produced goals by committee, with no player reaching the 20 goal mark. This placed Providence in the bottom half of the AHL in goal scoring, but both Spooner and Pastrnak played large portions of the season in Boston.
Expectations are very high on Pastrnak, who clearly is an NHL level player, but is playing in the Calder Cup playoffs to play in high pressure playoff situations and to develop the leadership skills necessary to grind through future Stanley Cup playoff runs in Boston. This is Spooner’s swan song in Providence as he is expected to make the Boston line-up right out of training camp. The pressure is on for him to play at an elite level against AHL competition.
Zack Phillips, a trade deadline addition from the Minnsota Wild organization is expected to be a key depth center below Spoons and Koko.
The Providence Bruins defensive depth is its bread and butter. The team is 6th overall in the AHL in goals against. NHL veteran Steve Eminger leads the D-Core offensively with 23 points, with the powerful Chis Casto leading the entire team with a +17 plus/minus. Christopher Breen, who is 6’7, will give Hartford little space to create offense. The speedy David Warsofsky will be expected to ignite the transition game with his foot speed and first pass. Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow are both expected to be steady defense-men making high percentage plays and chip in offensively. Tommy Cross will likely the 7th D-man on the team.
Jeremy Smith is expected to be the starter for most of, if not all of the Calder Cup playoff games, as he had a very strong season with 0.933 save percentage and a 2.05 goals against average, placing him 4th in the AHL. Top prospect Malcolm Subban had equivalent numbers to his rookie season, but seemed to slow down overall in his development with some technique issues.
The American Hockey League 1st round playoffs are a best of 5 series. Teams are pressured to get off to a good start pretty quickly, or else they could be forced to win 3 straight games to win the series in a definitive game 5. This dynamic can make these first round series quite intense.
Forward Line Juggling
The additions of Pastrnak and Spooner will greatly help this team, but it also leaves Providence with a lot of questions on how they want to reconstruct their forward lines. Spooner and Pastrnak were separated for Friday night’s game to spread the wealth among the top two lines, but it seemed to lack chemistry, albeit it was only 1 game. If they remain separated for game 1 of the series and the lines continue to lack chemistry, head coach Cassidy should consider pairing Spooner and Pastrnak together on the 1st line.
Just for fun, this is how I would construct the top two forward lines:
The sizeable Florek will mirror the role that Lucic performed for Spoons and Pasta in Boston, while also chipping in a significant amount of offense. Head coach Bruce Cassidy has a lot of options at his disposal and it will be interesting to see what he does with it.
Providence wins on the road in Game 5 with the P-Bruins offense being stronger than it was in the regular season and having a far superior goals against over Hartford.