105 points, 50 wins, and finishing first in the AHL in the regular season mean nothing in the playoffs. The Providence Bruins are the #1 seed about to get swept by the #8 seeded Hershey Bears and it's a disaster.
Here's a quick recap of the series in case you have blocked it out from the emotional trauma it has caused:
- Game 1: Hershey wins 5-2, getting Svedberg pulled in the 2nd period, scoring on 50% of their power plays, and pretty much dominating in every way. It sucked.
- Game 2: Providence was better, but they still blew a 1-goal lead with less than 2 minutes left in the game, then lost 2 minutes later in overtime with Exelby in the penalty box for a stupid high sticking penalty.
- Game 3 is Saturday night in Hershey. If Hershey wins, they win the series, because the AHL is a bunch of assholes who think it's appropriate to make a hockey series best-of-five.
The most obvious reasons the P-Bruins are down 2-0 right now in this series include the following:
- Special teams failures.
- Poor goaltending.
- Exelby sucks.
Inexperience has been the biggest storyline from the start, and the Bears have not been shy about exploiting this advantage. Providence has not made the playoffs at all since 2009, while the Bears consistently not only make the playoffs, but have won more championships than any other team (again: Habs of the AHL. Easily.) Aside from the individual experience at the pro level of Hershey's players, the expectations that come with the culture of the Hershey Bears automatically gives them an advantage against Providence - a team that has already grossly overachieved in not only making the playoffs, but kicking ass in the regular season. That is more than good enough for most.
For Hershey, the expectations to succeed teamed with the collective veteran experience means the players are already in the playoff mindset from the drop of the puck in game 1. For Providence, it took them at least a full game to get to that level. Which makes sense, because if you look at the regular season, it took about 2 months for Providence to fully hit their stride and begin to dominate the league.
Unfortunately, they don't have that kind of time to "hit their stride" in the playoffs, especially the AHL playoffs, because WHY THE HELL IS THE FIRST ROUND BEST-OF-FIVE? That gives Providence even less time to adjust while giving Hershey fewer challengers to overcome in defeating the number one seed. But the point is, the playoffs are a separate animal the the regular season. It's a "second season." So it's not entirely surprising that the P-Bruins are having a slow start given what they went through at the start of the regular season. But it's still not acceptable.
The experience that Providence does have shows - of the six goals they have scored in this series (by five different players), four of those players have made appearances in the AHL playoffs before, and three of them have been Hershey Bears before. In game one, Christian Hanson and Jamie Tardif scored. In game two, Graham Mink scored twice, Chris Bourque scored, and the lone P-Bruin making his professional playoff debut to score a goal was Carter Camper. The rookies that have been stars all season aren't performing.
Which reminds me - it was an extremely poor decision by Coach Cassidy not to play Graham Mink in game one. Mink was a healthy scratch in favor of Jared Knight. Why? I do not know. Mink has extensive playoff experience and success. He has won championships with Hershey and led them in scoring along with Bourque. They are two of Providence's biggest assets in countering Hershey's seniority. But Mink sat out game one in favor of a rookie who has played a grand total of 10 AHL games this season and in his career. It was just an awful decision and Mink's immediate important presence was felt in game two. He could have won that game if it wasn't for that stupid overtime penalty and...okay I'll get into that later.
Special teams failure is another huge problem. Did you see that ridiculous stat about Hershey's PP being 50% in game one? They scored three power play goals. Most of the penalty calls in this series have been pretty bad, but you can only blame the reffing so much before you just have to realize you are playing like shit.
Providence's own PP has been extremely disappointing. The difference in most of the P-Bruins games this season have hung almost solely on the ability to kill penalties and score on the PP. Both have let them down. They have one power play goal this series, but for the most part, they have followed in the steps of their NHL team in Boston and their PP has been nothing but a momentum-killer in how bad it has been. Especially in comparison to Hershey's power play success.
Poor goaltending seems a bit harsh because we can't hang this solely on Niklas Svedberg. He was, after all, the reason they made it to the playoffs at all anyway. But, like the rest of the team, he has a slow start to the regular season, and appears to be having an incredibly slow start to the playoffs. And this is the one guy the team cannot afford to lose in terms of reliability.
Not having complete trust in Svedberg to make big saves will cause the entire system to lose confidence and break down, which we are kind of already seeing. There has been no flow or synchronicity in Providence's game, which is something they should be kicking Hershey's ass in. Hershey may be big and physical, but Providence is small and quick. But they've been slowed by the inability to make precise passes, frequent turnovers, and poor coverage in all zones. The defense hasn't exactly been stellar all season, but Svedberg always bailed them out. Right now, that's not the case.
Both Coach Cassidy and Svedberg are aware that Svedberg has not been up to par. When he was pulled in game one, it wasn't entirely due to having a bad game more than it was to shake things up and get through to the team, but game two was a big disappointment. Svedberg didn't make big saves he needed to make. He didn't make some simple saves he probably should have made. He knows he needs to be better, and I hope this means he will be better. I really hope he has that mental toughness to step up in a situation like this and maybe swoop in and steal game three.
Hershey goaltender Phillip Grubauer is also a young European making his professional playoff debut. He is German-born and spent several years in the OHL. He won a Memorial Cup in 2010 with the Windsor Spitfires as the backup goaltender on a team with Taylor Hall. He isn't as good a goaltender as Svedberg is, but he has been much better this season. Although I would like to note that the 54 saves or whatever he supposedly made in game two is inaccurate - the shot totals for Providence as tallied at home games for the P-Bruins are ridiculously inflated. 25 shots in the 1st period for Providence was simply not true. That being said, Grubauer has been better and made a lot of saves. Svedberg hasn't had to make as many saves, and when he has had to make the big saves, he hasn't done it.
His defense isn't the greatest but the slightly good news is that Kevan Miller, one of the P-Bruins' key defenseman, will be returning to the lineup on Saturday after nursing a rib injury. Which d-man he will replace I do not know, but it probably won't be Exelby which is too bad because I'd like to make the obligatory comment that:
Exelby sucks and that is usually at least one reason the Bruins lose. He is their most veteran player in terms of experience at both the NHL and AHL levels, but he sucks. I have paragraphs of ragging on him already written but I should really not be so awful towards my own team's players so I'll just say this: Exelby's high sticking penalty in overtime in game 2 that cost the game and perhaps ultimately the series is not the first time Exelby has done something so stunningly stupid and costly to his team at a crucial juncture.
Looking on the bright side...is hard to do, but we'll do it anyway. Providence was vastly improved in game two, and probably the better team overall. There was a questionable (horrible) non-icing call early in overtime that was waived off for no reason that Coach Cassidy was justifiably pissed about after the game. The non-icing led directly to the high-sticking call against Exelby. The reffing has really been atrocious, but Providence was slightly more disciplined in game two. In fact, I would have said it was a game-changer if it hadn't been the very thing that resulted in them losing in overtime.
Another bright spot has been the line of Carter Camper centering Jordan Caron and Craig Cunningham. They have been flying and looking good, which really makes up for the shortcomings of whatever the hell Ryan Spooner is trying to do right now. He and Jamie Tardif looked lost out there together on in game two. The only saving grace was Chris Bourque, who was suspiciously seen chumming it up with his former Hershey teammates after the devastating loss. (It wasn't actually suspicious, but I won't allow it.)
But let's face it...Hershey is a team that is consistently a Calder Cup contender (congratulations! Not a Stanley Cup) because they have mastered the art of picking the best career AHLers. That's the majority of their team right now. They have a relatively young defense, but their core and leading scorers include players that have bounced from ECHL, AHL, and minimal NHL games for up to a decade. They have had success in the AHL, and that's where it ends. It's hard to compete with that from the view of Providence, which is a team of rookie stars that will graduate to the NHL in no time and have actual successful careers.
Let's get a more in-depth look at the experience advantage Hershey has (a storyline they are riding really hard, which is annoying, but it's actually really true so I have to go ahead with it here):
- Hershey's Joey Crabb won the Calder Cup with the Chicago Wolves in 2007-08.
- Ryan Potulny holds an AHL record - he scored the OT winner in the longest game ever played. In the 2008 playoffs as a member of the Philadelphia Phantoms, in round 1, game 5, he ended the game 2:58 into the 5th overtime. Potulny also won a Calder Cup with the Binghamton Senators in 2010-11 season, and was the leading scorer in the playoffs that year.
- Nicholas Deschamps went to the Calder Cup finals with the Toronto Marlies last year (they lost to the Norfolk Admirals.)
- Boyd Kane won a Calder Cup with the Philadelphia Phantoms in 2004-05, then two more with Hershey in 2005-06 and 2009-10. He has over 100 career AHL playoff games.
- Jon DiSalvatore went to the finals with the Calder Cup finals with the Houston Aeroes in 2010-11.
- Casey Wellman also went to the finals with the Houston Aeroes in 2010-11.
- Matt Pope went to the finals with the Manitoba Moose in 2008-09, before losing to the Hershey Bears in the finals.
The only players on Providence with anywhere close to that level of experience are Bourque and Mink and that's because they did it when they were Hershey Bears. Exelby also won a Calder Cup with the Chicago Wolves back in 2001-02, but hasn't seen playoff action since he was with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2007. And vets like Trent Whitfield and Tardif have a lot of experience, but not a lot of experience winning or making deep playoff runs at the pro level. Svedberg has experience winning in the Swedish Elite League last season, but a lot of players have experience winning in juniors, NCAA, or other minor leagues. I don't think that's quite the same as what to expect in the AHL playoffs, and that disadvantage in mere exposure to professional playoffs is proving to be a huge problem.
But now they have two playoff games under their belts, with a lot of adversity, and hopefully this team can pull their shit together and win three straight.