Hello, darkness, my old friend. It’s good to talk with you again.
For the 15th straight spring and the 16th spring out of 18 in existence, the WBS Penguins will take to the ice in search of the one trophy that has thus far eluded them: the Calder Cup. They’ve won divisions, they’ve won conferences, they’ve made it to the championship round three times, they’ve won the regular season championship twice, but they’ve never won the big prize.
Stepping to the line first to stop them is a very familiar adversary: the Providence Bruins, a franchise with which WBS has shared a very recent, but very memorable playoff history, with this being the fourth showdown in the last five seasons between the clubs.
2016-17 SEASON HISTORY (WBS won series 4-2-0-0)
- November 6: WBS 5 @ Providence 4 (SO)
- November 12: Providence 1 @ WBS 3
- December 30: Providence 5 @ WBS 2
- February 19: WBS 2 @ Providence 3
- March 11: Providence 2 @ WBS 3
- April 9: WBS 2 @ Providence 1
2013, Round 2: WBS overcame Providence in 7 games, becoming the first team in the history of the Calder Cup playoffs to overcome an 0-3 series deficit and win Game 7 on the road.
2014, Round 2: WBS once again prevailed in 7 games, racing out to a 5-0 lead in Game 7 at home before nearly giving it all away, winning 5-4.
2016, Round 1: WBS swept the Bruins out of the playoffs, getting a club record 59 saves from Casey DeSmith in Game 3 in Providence before Jake Guentzel, now excelling for Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup playoffs, scored in double-overtime to eliminate the Bruins.
Game 1: Friday, April 21, WBS @ Providence, 7:05 pm EDT
Game 2: Sunday, April 23, WBS @ Providence, 3:05 pm EDT
Game 3: Thursday, April 27, Providence @ WBS, 7:05 pm EDT
Game 4: Friday, April 28, Providence @ WBS, 7:05 pm EDT
Game 5: Sunday, April 30, Providence @ WBS, 7:05 pm EDT
Despite losing All-Rookie selection Jake Guentzel, the speedy Josh Archibald, the ever-more-reliable Carter Rowney, and the big, bad Tom Sestito to callup to Pittsburgh during the season, the WBS offensive attack still managed to record the fifth-most goals in the American Hockey League this season with 247. Their venerable captain, Tom Kostopoulos, led the way with 24 goals in 74 games at age 38. Guentzel finished the season with 21 goals in just 33 games without playing for WBS for the last three months.
Among the other forwards, center prospect Oskar Sundqvist cracked 20 goals for the first time in his career, adding some much-needed offensive punch to his already stellar defensive work. Fellow prospect Jean-Sebastien Dea posted 18 goals in his 73 games to finish two short of his career high. Ten different forwards scored at least 10 goals for WBS for the season, including the graduated Archibald and Rowney, so the WBS attack is not just potent, but balanced.
As an added boost, Pittsburgh announced this morning that Archibald, Sestito, and Cameron Gaunce were reassigned to WBS. Archibald and Sestito will likely be able to step right into the lineup, while Gaunce must clear waivers first.
WBS has also benefited greatly from the presence of Hobey Baker Award finalist Zach Aston-Reese down the stretch to the tune of 3 goals and 5 assists in 10 games, but his availability for this series is uncertain. WBS will also be watching for the impending arrival of star prospect Daniel Sprong from the Charlottetown Islanders of the QMJHL, but with the Islanders sweeping their first two series of the QMJHL playoffs, Sprong’s arrival may not come during this series. Sprong currently has 7 goals and 7 assists in Charlottetown’s 8 playoff games, all wins.
The Providence Bruins attack was not too far behind in terms of total goals forced with 229, ranking 9th in the AHL. The dangerous Alexander Khokhlachev and Frank Vatrano are no longer with Providence, but they still pose plenty of offensive firepower, led by winger Jordan Szwarz and his 22 goals in 65 games. Rookies Peter Cehlarik and Jake DeBrusk posted 20 and 19 goals, respectively, during their debut seasons to lead a Providence forward group that is just as balanced as WBS, with 9 forwards posting 10 or more goals in the regular season.
In addition, Mark Divver of the Providence Journal reports this morning that Jeremy Lauzon of the QMJHL’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and Zach Senyshyn of the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds will join Providence for the playoffs. Lauzon’s Huskies lost Game 7 of their QMJHL second round series in overtime on Tuesday; Lauzon scored 5 goals and 9 points in the Huskies’ 13 playoff games. Senyshyn’s Greyhounds lost Round 2 of the OHL playoffs in six games to the Owen Sound Attack; Senyshyn scored 4 goals and 1 assist in the Greyhounds’ 11 playoff games.
EDGE: Penguins, but by less than you’d think. Archibald’s addition this morning tips the advantage to WBS much more so than it had been earlier this week.
Led by All-AHL Second Team defender David Warsofsky, the Penguins defense helped to clinched the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for its goalies, Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith, by conceding only 170 goals over the course of 76 games, the fifth time in the last seven years WBS has featured the league’s stingiest defense. Warsofsky also contributed to the offense in a huge way, tallying 16 goals of his own. Only ATO signing Dylan Zink finished the season with a minus rating (-2), and that was primarily due to one very difficult final game of the season; all other defenders finished neutral or better, led by Warsofsky’s +30 and also highlighted by Derrick Pouliot’s +15, Barry Goers’s +16, and Tim Erixon’s +11.
Perhaps it’s unfortunate, then, that WBS will match up against the second-stingiest defense in the Eastern Conference, as Providence conceded only 188 goals over the course of 76 games. Former WBS prospect Alex Grant features very brightly for Providence on attack, scoring 17 goals and 49 points over 70 games to finish fifth among all AHL defenders. Rookies Matt Grzelcyk and Rob O’Gara also contributed to the Providence cause with 32 and 13 points, respectively. The wild card on the Providence defense might be the presence or absence of longtime Providence Bruin Tommy Cross, who scored 12 goals and 35 points in 74 games but was also called up to Boston on Monday of this week to help replenish a very injury-depleted Boston blue line. Should Cross return to Providence, it could prove to be the edge for the Bruins blue line.
EDGE: Inconclusive. Without Cross, WBS; with Cross, push.
You don’t win the Hap Holmes award without having some stellar goaltending. WBS enjoyed that again this season, as Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith essentially split goaltending duties during the season. Jarry finished 28-15-2 in 45 games, with a 2.15 GAA, a 92.5% save percentage, and three shutouts during the season, earning himself a callup to Pittsburgh, a start in Pittsburgh’s final game of the season, and (currently) the backup goalie duties as Matt Murray recovers from injury. DeSmith earned All-Rookie honors for himself with a 21-5-3 record in 29 games, a 2.01 GAA, a 92.6% save percentage, and one shutout. DeSmith is in position to backstop the WBS playoff run unless and until Jarry returns, with fellow rookie Sean Maguire set to back up DeSmith.
As is becoming a trend with these analyses, Providence boasts a very solid pair of goaltenders of its own. Primary goalie Zane McIntyre didn’t lose an AHL start this season until March 3, finishing 21-6-2 with a 2.03 GAA, 93.0% save percentage, and two shutouts. McIntyre finished 2-2 against WBS this season, winning his starts in December and February but losing his starts in March and April, even being removed from the March game in favor of his backup Malcolm Subban. In his fourth professional season, Subban finished 11-14-5 with a 2.41 GAA, a 91.7% save percentage, and one shutout. Subban lost his only start against WBS in November, but he relieved McIntyre from his March start and proceeded to stop all 23 WBS shots he faced.
EDGE: Between DeSmith and McIntyre, I’ll call it a push, but there are a lot of variables here. Jarry’s return would tip the edge to WBS, but in a battle of backups, the edge may go to Providence.
Clear edge to WBS, as they outrank Providence on nearly every metric shown, from shot generation to shot suppression, shooting percentage to saving percentage. The only thing favoring Providence is 5v5 goals allowed, but as @loserpoints pointed out to me, WBS’s goal output has been so good that their goal share doesn’t suffer as a result of it.
The Providence power play finished with a success rating of 19.1%, good for 11th in the league. WBS’s power play finished at 17.9%, tying for 14th. The WBS penalty kill finished tops in the league, dispatching 86.9% of penalties, but Providence finished second at 86.4%. Push.
As of the start of the series, Pittsburgh has eliminated the Columbus Blue Jackets in 5 games, and the Ottawa Senators lead the Boston Bruins 3-1, with Game 5 tonight. A Boston elimination stands to bolster their AHL affiliates for this series, led by Cross and Subban. A Pittsburgh elimination before the potential end of this series on April 30 is now highly unlikely, but it stands to supercharge WBS for the entire playoff run, as Jake Guentzel, Carter Rowney, Josh Archibald, Cameron Gaunce, and Tristan Jarry are all eligible to return to WBS.
Last year, I picked Providence in four in this first-round series and was proven terribly, terribly wrong. I’m not making that mistake again...not with this team. Penguins in four.