Monday, February 6, 2012

Can Hot-Streaking P-Bruins Withstand IceCaps?

Amidst an active 6-0-1 unbeaten tear, the Providence Bruins have officially crept back into Calder Cup playoff contention. They enter Tuesday night’s start to a two-night stay in St. John’s in a virtual tie with the Portland Pirates for 10th place in the Eastern Conference and two points behind Connecticut and Worcester for a postseason spot.

Too good to be true? Well, truth be told, it just might be. And the truest of the Baby Bs’ black and gold could be yanked out of hiding Tuesday and Wednesday.

Maybe now is the time to mention that Providence has mostly made much out of minute output of late.

True enough, during this streak, the Bruins have gained invaluable ground with three wins over the fellow welterweight Springfield Falcons and flustered the Sharks by taking three of a possible four points. Their averages in the way of offense, defense and both sides of the special teams’ spectrum for the last seven games have been immensely better than that of their overall 47-game scope.

But one critical area has actually dipped in the most recent span. Whereas Providence has averaged 28.57 shots at the adversaries’ cage in 47 ventures, the data in that category stands at 25.14 within the current 6-0-1 run.

Of late, only top gun Carter Camper, Calle Ridderwall and too-often-off-target Jamie Arniel have chipped in a nightly average of two registered stabs or more. And everyone continues to habitually evaporate in the attacking zone as games wind down.

This midweek set with the Atlantic Division-leading IceCaps will give a better gauge as to the P-Bruins’ posture, for it will surely test the weaknesses that have been idled for the better part of the last three weeks.

More than anything, stamina will have to recur as a concern at some point. In their last six wins, the P-Bruins have scored first and held the upper hand through both the first and second intermissions.

But over their last seven outings, they have been outshot in the third period by a cumulative basketball-blowout tally of 97-46. They have been outscored in the closing stanza, 8-3.

Three times in its last four games―all wins, mind you―Providence has charged up exactly four shots on goal in the third period while letting the opposition crack double-digits at the other end.

In Saturday’s 3-2 triumph at Adirondack, goaltender Michael Hutchinson was tasked with safeguarding a 3-1 advantage and subjected to a 22-shot salvo while the Bruins pelted Phantoms’ Michael Leighton with only four stabs.

Two weeks ago, the P-Bruins and host Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins each mustered seven SOG in both the first and second periods, in which time Providence sculpted itself another 3-1 lead for Anton Khudobin.

But upon controlling the shooting gallery in the closing frame, 12-4, the Eastern Conference-leading Baby Pens salvaged a point by deleting the deficit and forcing overtime.

At the 40-minute mark of a Jan. 22 home date with Springfield, the Bruins upheld a 4-1 lead on the scoreboard along with a 15-13 edge under the SOG heading. By night’s end, the latter had devolved into a 29-19 disadvantage, though Khudobin had just enough of a cushion to stamp a 4-3 regulation victory.

Facing the third-most potent and arguably the most balanced strike force in the AHL for the next two nights, Providence cannot simply bank on Khudobin or Hutchinson stealing the climactic phases of the next two games.

Besides pure production, the IceCaps are one of the league’s busiest puckslinging bunches as it is. They trail only the Grand Rapids Griffins for the most shots per game with a median of 33 per night.

It is worth noting that the IceCaps are immediately trailed on that leaderboard by Worcester, the only team in recent memory to surmount the P-Bruins on the scoreboard. In a Jan. 21 confrontation at DCU Center, the Sharks smoothly peppered Hutchinson with 34 regulation shots (14-9 edge in a scoreless third period) and then penetrated him on their fourth try in overtime.

That was also the only game out of their last seven that did not see the Bruins leading at either intermission (1-0 deficit after one and 2-2 draw after two).

They could have taken less out of that night than the single regulation point. And unless they have, in fact, attained an elevated compete level, they could relapse into more regular empty nights as early as Tuesday.

Providence is fortunate enough to have no further engagements with the IceCaps after Wednesday. And 19 of the P-Bruins’ remaining 27 games will be against those currently sandwiching them on the Eastern Conference leaderboard between seventh and 13th place.

Still, the validity and viability of their momentum could be determined while in Newfoundland. Nothing guaranteed on that front.