When the Providence Bruins reached the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago, it was an accomplishment that exceeded all but their own expectations. Fast forward one year later where a Conference Final run could be an even bigger success story.
Despite defeating the Springfield Falcons 4-2 at home in the regular season finale on Sunday the P-Bruins still only finished fourth in the Atlantic Division thanks to the Charlotte Checkers 4-1 win over the Bridgeport Soundtigers. As a result, Providence will face off against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, who finished with the second highest point total in the American Hockey League, for a best-of-five first round series starting Friday night at the Dunkin Donuts Center.
Providence enters the playoffs without a couple key contributors from last season’s run. With Providence’s playoff leading scorer Danton Heinen — along with Jake DeBrusk and Matt Grzelcyk — playing a role in Boston’s playoff run, the P-Bruins will look to their leaders to step up and lead the way to another deep playoff run.
Included in that mix is Austin Czarnik, who finished with a career-high 69 points (25 g, 44 a) this season, just two points off the league lead.
“We just have to keep doing what we’re doing,” Czarnik said after Sunday’s game. “We have four hard-working lines that love to play the game, love to battle and I think that if we lead as a line (Czarnik skated with Ryan Fitzgerald and Jordan Szwarz in the finale) the rest of the lines will follow.”
“He’s really raised his level to a place that’s very elite in this league,” head coach Jay Leach said of his star forward,” “He’s clearly shown that he’s among the best here and at the same time he went up this year and played very well in Boston.
“He’s a hockey player, as us coaches love to say. Loves to compete. The last 50 games, he really turned it on and he separated himself from a lot of players. He deserves every one of those points and every accolade he’s going to get.”
Arguably the most vital piece of a team’s deep playoff run is the play between the pipes. Enter Zane McIntyre. Although he finished just outside the top-15 in both goals-against average (2.52) and save percentage (.914) and getting pushed by his backup, Jordan Binnington, all season long, McIntyre is tabbed as the team’s starter for the second straight postseason.
McIntyre hopes to replicate his postseason run a season ago. The former North Dakota standout sported an 8-7 record with a .906 save percentage and a 2.57 GAA in 19 postseason games in 2017. The numbers may not be eye-popping, but McIntyre made plenty of timely saves that kept opponents off the board.
“Just have to play my game,” McIntyre said about the key to helping the team in another long postseason run. “I have to make the saves I’m expected to make and rob a few here and there throughout the series. Just hold the fort down and put out any fires when we have any breakdowns.”
As for Providence’s first-round opponent, Lehigh Valley sports a very potent offense that found the back of the net 260 times this season, good enough for second in the AHL behind Charlotte. Phil Varone and his 70 points (second most in the AHL) leads the Phantoms attack, while Greg and Daniel Martel both chipped in significantly as well with respective 31 and 25-goal campaigns.
But the P-Bruins surrendered just 187 goals on the year, the fewest in the Atlantic, and third fewest in the AHL. In a matchup of a good offense vs a good defense, something will have to give.
The Phantoms took four of the six meetings this seasons, including all three in Pennsylvania and, most recently, a 6-3 win at the Dunk on April 8. Providence’s two victories came back on March 23 and 24, a 5-4 overtime win and a 6-1 victory.
“Lehigh Valley is a very offensive team,” McIntyre said. “They transition well and they pounce on turnovers. That’s their M.O.”
“Lehigh’s a good team,” Czarnik added. “They’re fast, they’re smart with the puck and they’re power play is deadly, so the focus is not to give them too many power plays because they can make things happen.”
Though the P-Bruins may not need any more motivation, it certainly won’t hurt for them to look to the big club in Boston and draw some inspiration.
“We definitely love to watch and it’s inspiring to our group to see what they have done in the first couple of games in the series,” Leach said. “But at the same time, you’re also focused on the task at hand.”
Another run to the conference final could come as a shock to some, especially since Providence is not as loaded as they were a year ago. But the Baby B’s were a fourth-seed around this time last season as well, and just look at how that turned out for them.