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Calder Cup Playoffs Preview: WBS Penguins vs. Providence Bruins

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WBS gets the worst matchup possible in Round 1 with the highly skilled and loaded Providence Bruins. They've got a tall order ahead of them.

For the third time in the last four years, the WBS Penguins and Providence Bruins will meet up in the Calder Cup playoffs.  Let’s break down the series.

SCHEDULE:

Wednesday, April 20 @ WBS, 7:05 pm EDT

Thursday, April 21 @ WBS, 7:05 pm EDT

Saturday, April 23 @ PRO, 7:05 pm EDT

Monday, April 25 @ PRO, 7:05 pm EDT

Tuesday, April 26 @ PRO, 7:05 pm EDT

SEASON SERIES

October 9:  WBS 2, Providence 1 (OT)

November 27:  Providence 0, WBS 3

January 24: WBS 2, Providence 5

February 28: WBS 2, Providence 3

March 26: Providence 5, WBS 0

April 16: Providence 3, WBS 1

The simple trend to note here is that, when WBS had its full lineup, they were able to hang with and defeat the Bruins.  When WBS’s roster began to be depleted by callups, Providence gained the personnel advantage and was able to hang consistent victories on WBS.  Going from the game in November to the game in January, WBS lost Scott Wilson, Conor Sheary, Derrick Pouliot, and Kevin Porter from its lineup, while Providence gained its star rookie Frank Vatrano and its dynamic center Alexander Khokhlachev.  The personnel advantage, as we’ll see later, is clearly in Providence’s favor.

PLAYOFF HISTORY

The Penguins and Bruins staged two remarkable seven-game series in 2013 and 2014, with each falling the way of the Penguins.  In 2013, the top-seeded Bruins posted 8-5 and 4-2 victories over the Penguins in Providence in their second-round series, then stole Game 3 in Wilkes-Barre 2-1 in overtime.  WBS, in their long playoff tradition, would not die so easily, as they took 3-1 and 4-0 victories in Games 4 and 5 to send the series back to Providence, where WBS goalie Brad Thiessen recorded one of the greatest performances in WBS playoff history by stopping 46 of 47 Providence shots.  When Trevor Smith scored at 3:26 of overtime, the unthinkable had occurred.  Game 7.  WBS had all the momentum, and they used every bit of it to whitewash Providence 5-0 in Game 7 to become only the third team in the history of the AHL to turn 0-3 into a series win…and the first to win Game 7 on the road in the process.

Providence was out for payback a year later in round 2, but this series was played a lot more evenly than its predecessor, with both teams splitting the first two games in WBS.  WBS won Game 3 5-4 in double-overtime in Providence, but the Bruins struck back in Game 4 with a 3-2 win.  WBS took the crucial Game 5 in Providence 3-2, but the Bruins extended the series to Game 7 with a 4-1 win in WBS, setting up one of the most incredible Game 7s I’ve ever seen.  The game went scoreless for the first 20 minutes, then within a six-minute span of the second period, WBS cranked out five goals, punctuated by this fourth goal by Brian Gibbons, easily a top-5 goal in WBS history…

Providence would claw all the way back to 5-4 with about 10 minutes to go, but WBS was able to slam the door from there to take another seven-game series from the Bruins.

This year, the series is in the first round, best-of-5.  Let’s take a look at the teams.

FORWARDS

The WBS Penguins feature a relatively balanced attack, with four active players on the roster scoring 20 or more goals this season either for WBS or, in the case of 2nd team AHL All-Star Dustin Jeffrey, as a total for both WBS and Springfield.  Among players who spent the entire season with WBS, Carter Rowney leads all skaters with 56 points (24 goals, 32 assists), trailed by the WBS captain Tom Kostopoulos with 52 points (19 + 33).  WBS also received favorable contributions from rookie Dominik Simon, who led the team with 25 goals on the season in his rookie campaign, as well as Kael Mouillierat’s 45 points (18 + 27) and Jean-Sebastien Dea’s 36 points (20 + 16).  It was also announced on Tuesday evening that WBS will gain the services of Pittsburgh's top draft pick from 2015, Daniel Sprong, for the playoffs, but it remains to be seen if Sprong is fit enough to play and what sort of contributions he can make.

Providence features plenty of skilled forwards to counter the WBS attack.  The Bruins feature two first team AHL-All-Stars in winger Seth Griffith, with 24 goals and 53 assists (tops in the AHL) for 77 points in just 57 games, and rookie center Frank Vatrano, the AHL’s Rookie of the Year and the Willie Marshall Award winner with the most goals in the AHL, with a remarkable 36 goals and 19 assists in just 36 AHL games.  Providence also features point-per-game center Alexander Khokhlachev, who finished with 23 goals and 45 assists (3rd in the AHL) for 68 points in 60 games; fellow rookie Austin Czarnik, who scored 20 goals and 41 assists for 61 points in 68 games.  There is a strong WBS Penguins connection as well on Providence, with former Penguins Brandon DeFazio (22 + 21) and Max Talbot (10 + 11) providing valuable secondary opportunities.

EDGE: Providence

DEFENSE

The WBS defense is led by Will O’Neill, 2nd team AHL All-Star, whose 42 assists ranked second among all WBS skaters and trailing only Brandon Montour of San Diego and TJ Brennan of Toronto among all AHL defenders.  Also notable among WBS’s defenders is Steve Oleksy, the former Hershey Bears captain who was named as WBS’s best defenseman in the WBS team-ending awards.  Rookie Niclas Andersen has also provided a steady presence on the WBS blue line all season.

The Providence defense is very large, most notably Chris Breen at 6’7" in his sixth AHL season.  Leading Providence’s defenders in scoring was 6’2" Matt Irwin, with 5 goals and 25 assists in 30 games.  Not far behind him was 6’3" Chris Casto, in his third full season with Providence, scoring 7 goals and 16 assists in 68 games, followed by 6’3" Tommy Cross in his fourth season with Providence, scoring 3 goals and 20 assists.

EDGE: Push.  It will be a very tall order for the WBS defense to hold back the Providence attack in this series, but Providence’s size may come in handy when trying to defend the passing plays of WBS.

GOALTENDING

The WBS Penguins started the year with the best goalie tandem in the AHL in Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry.  They enter the Calder Cup playoffs with an ECHL call-up, Casey DeSmith, a college PTO signing, Sean Maguire, and the possibility of a Jarry reassignment should Marc-Andre Fleury or Murray return to full health.  DeSmith acquitted himself nicely in the final weekend of the season, allowing only one goal to Lehigh Valley, two to Providence, and one to Hershey on Sunday before leaving after taking a shot to his helmet.  Should DeSmith not be able to play for whatever reason, waiting in the wings down in Wheeling is Brian Foster and Frank Palazzesse.

Where there is great uncertainty in the WBS net, there is no such questioning the Providence net, as Jeremy Smith went 13-5-1 in 20 games with a 2.02 GAA and a 93.4% save percentage for Providence since being recalled from his loan to Iowa following fellow goaltender Malcolm Subban having his larynx fractured.  Behind Smith is rookie Zane McIntyre, who went 14-8-7 in 31 games with a 2.68 GAA and an 89.8% save percentage.  Throw Subban into the mix if he should recover from his injuries, and you’ve got a solid trio of goaltenders.

EDGE: Providence, even if Jarry comes back.

SPECIAL TEAMS

WBS’s power play finished the season with a success rate of 18.6%, which is good for 7th in the AHL.  Providence’s power play finished 22.6%, tops in the AHL, though Providence’s PP was only able to convert one opportunity against WBS all season.

WBS’s penalty kill finished the season with an 83.3% success rate, good for 16th in the AHL.  Providence’s PK finished 87.4%, second in the AHL behind only the Ontario Reign at 88.7%.

EDGE: Providence

CONCLUSION

Of all the potential matchups for the WBS Penguins in these playoffs, Providence presents them with the most problems.  Where the NHL affiliates for fellow Atlantic Division qualifiers Hershey (Washington), Portland (Florida), and Bridgeport (NY Islanders) are still active, as are the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Providence Bruins enjoy the luxury of having their parent team, Boston, eliminated from playoff contention.  This allowed Boston to send back any players that had been sent to Providence or who were previously on Providence for the trade deadline, and Boston did so on Monday, April 11, by sending Noel Acciari, Max Talbot, Frank Vatrano, and Colin Miller to their affiliate for the playoffs.

Even though the WBS Penguins have been the toughest out in the AHL playoffs in their history, sporting numerous series comebacks including 0-3 against these Bruins three years ago, it would take a herculean effort along the lines of Andy Chiodo and the cardiac Penguins of 2004 for these Penguins to survive this series.  The WBS Penguins have only lost their opening series of the playoffs once in their history, 2010, when Albany swept them in four games.  I fear this year could be the second.

PREDICTION

Providence in four.  Please, WBS…prove me wrong.