CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Charlotte Checkers finished with the best record in the entire American Hockey League during the 2018-19 regular season, but they have a difficult matchup against the Providence Bruins in round one.
Charlotte accumulated 110 points in the regular season, a staggering .724 points percentage, but that doesn’t matter now. Just ask the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa tied an NHL record with 62 regular season wins, only to be swept by Columbus in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Checkers will be keen to avoid the same fate.
There was never any question as to whether or not the Checkers would make the playoffs, as the led the AHL nearly start-to-finish. The 110 points put up by Charlotte was the most in the team’s nine-year history in North Carolina, surpassing the previous mark of 97 set in its inaugural season of 2010-2011. That Checkers squad made it all the way to the East Finals before bowing out. Charlotte hasn’t been past the second round since. This is the Checkers’ fifth appearance in the Calder Cup Playoffs, and their third straight.
The postseason prospects of the Bruins were much less secure, as they waited until the penultimate game of the season before clinching the final spot in the Atlantic. They finished with 87 points on the year, two ahead of the fifth-place Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
This is the seventh straight postseason appearance for the Bruins, continuing their history of success. Providence has missed the playoffs just five times in its 27 years as a club. The Bruins made the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago, but that was the only time in the last four years they have made it past the first round.
The road to the second round may seem uphill again this year, with the league’s top team blocking the path, but the matchup between the Bruins and Checkers is closer than it first appears. The two teams split eight regular season games, with all but one decided by one goal. With the intensity ratcheted up for the playoffs, expect more tightly contested games in the first postseason meeting between these two Atlantic Division clubs.
There are questions regarding the immediate presence of key players for both teams. Charlotte’s leading scorer Andrew Poturalski (23G, 47A, 70 Pts.) missed the last four games to due injury and is questionable for this weekend. For Providence, the question mark is starting goaltender Zane McIntyre (25-14-7, 2.59 GAA, .898 SV%). He is not currently listed on the Bruins Calder Cup Playoffs roster, and while he is expected to return, any game missed would be a big blow to the B’s.
Final Regular Season Record:
Charlotte Checkers: 51-17-7-1 (110 Points, First in Atlantic, First in East)
Providence Bruins: 38-27-8-3 (87 Points, Fourth in Atlantic, Seventh in East)
By the Numbers:
Game One: Saturday, April 20 – Charlotte at PROVIDENCE 7:05 ET
Game Two: Sunday, April 21 – Charlotte at PROVIDENCE 5:05 ET
Game Three: Wednesday, April 24 – Providence at CHARLOTTE 7:00 ET
*Game Four: Friday, April 26 – Providence at CHARLOTTE 7:00 ET
*Game Five: Saturday, April 27 – Providence at CHARLOTTE 6:00 ET
*=> If Necessary
Season Series Recap:
Charlotte went 4-2-2-0 against Providence
Providence went 4-3-1-0 against Charlotte
- November 2- Bruins 3 @ CHECKERS 4
- November 3- Bruins 2 @ CHECKERS 3
- November 30- Checkers 1 @ BRUINS 2
- December 2- CHECKERS 3 @ Bruins 2 (OT)
- January 25- Checkers 3 @ BRUINS 5
- February 1- BRUINS 2 @ Checkers 1 (OT)
- February 2- BRUINS 1 @ Checkers 0 (OT)
- February 16- CHECKERS 3 @ Bruins 2
The Bruins and Checkers played each other eight times in 2018-19, with each side claiming four victories. The series was even throughout, with the Bruins outscoring the Checkers by a narrow 19-18 count. The Checkers came away with one more point from the season set than the Bruins, thanks to taking two of their losses beyond 60 minutes compared to just one by the squad from Rhode Island. Overtime losses aren’t worth anything anymore, however, only who comes out on top in the end matters now.
Special teams play was dominated by the penalty kill units, with each side holding the other well below their season average with the man advantage. Charlotte clicked at 19.7% overall during the 2018-19 campaign, but hit at only 13.8% (5-for-36) in eight games against Providence. The Bruins, meanwhile, were just 10.7% (3-for-28) in the season series against the Checkers, compared to 17.7% on the year as a whole.
The Checkers were led in the season series by Poturalski, who posted three goals and two assists in the eight games. Poturalski, 25, from Williamsville, New York, was also the only player for either team with two game-winning goals in the series. Charlotte benefited from depth scoring in the season set as well, with Trevor Carrick (2G, 2A), Morgan Geekie (1G, 3A), and Janne Kuokkanen (1G, 3A) putting up four points each, and seven other players chipping in three each.
The Charlotte goaltending duties were split evenly between Alex Nedeljkovic and Scott Darling, who each played well in four appearances against Providence. Darling had the slightly better stats, with a goals against of 1.94 and save percentage of .922, compared to a 2.24 GAA and .919 SV% for Nedeljkovic in the season series. Nedeljkovic had the advantage in record, however, going 3-0-1 against the Bruins, while Darling was just 1-2-1. Nedeljkovic will be the starter for game one, but the Checkers have depth in net just in case.
Providence was led by a pair of players who played for the Bruins in just four of the eight outings against Charlotte. Paul Carey had seven points (3G, 4A) in eight overall games against the Checkers this year, but four of those came while he still played for Belleville. Carey had two goals and two helpers in his four games against the Checkers after joining the Bruins midseason. Trent Frederic also played in four games against Charlotte for Providence, posting four goals and an assist. The Bruins also received four points each in the season series from Jordan Szwarz (3G, 1A), Ryan Fitzgerald (1G, 3A), and Cameron Hughes (1G, 3A).
McIntyre led the way between the pipes for the Bruins, going 3-1-1 with a 2.14 goals against and .926 save percentage in five outings against the Checkers. Dan Vladar also saw significant time against Charlotte in 2018-19, which could be key if McIntyre doesn’t return to the Providence roster soon. Vladar was 1-2-0 with a 2.36 goals against and .925 save percentage in three starts during the season set.
How Charlotte Wins:
The Checkers are the better team on paper, but that doesn’t always pan out come playoff time. Parity is greater in hockey than in any other sport, meaning finishing first doesn’t earn you a pushover opponent in round one. This was an exceedingly even series during the regular season, and there is no reason to expect anything else here. Providence has been here before, and will come in with a plan to try to shut Charlotte down. The Checkers will need to establish the quicker pace of play they want by getting out in transition and spreading the ice to create time and space.
The Checkers have the clear advantage if this turns into a track meet, as their speed and offensive ability would have a chance to shine. Charlotte scored the third-most goals in the league this year with 255, and were fifth in goals per game at 3.11 per game. The Checkers scored three or more goals in each of their four wins over the Bruins this season. The Checkers will also want to set the tone early on, as they are nearly unbeatable if given a lead to play with. They were 30-5-1-1 when ahead after one period, and 38-0-0-0 this season when up after two.
Depth scoring will be a major key to a Charlotte victory, especially if Poturalski misses any time this weekend in games one and two. The Checkers will look to forwards Aleksi Saarela (30G, 24A, 54 Pts.), Martin Necas (16G, 36A, 52 Pts.), and Greekie (19G, 27A, 46 Pts.) to help carry the load, as well as a pair of high-scoring defenseman. Carrick (9G, 38A, 47 Pts.) and Jake Bean (13G, 31A, 44 Pts.) have been a force from the blueline, allowing the Checkers to spread the zone and use all five players in the offensive zone.
Charlotte has the final three games at home, putting the pressure on Providence to win both games one and two. If the Checkers are able to get their offense clicking and keep the Bruins chasing, they will have a great chance take control of the series early.
How Providence Wins:
The Bruins come in as the underdogs, but knowing they can compete with the Checkers after splitting the season series. This is not going to be a case of a team that was happy just to qualify being in awe of a one seed, Providence has no doubt they can win. The Bruins will want to lock it down defensively and turn this into a tight-checking, low-scoring series. The Bruins scored two or fewer goals in three of their four wins against the Checkers this year, showing the preference for defensive battles.
Providence will look between the pipes to McIntyre or Vlader in the series. While both are entirely capable of winning, McIntyre provides the best chance of winning the series. The Bruins will hope he is added to the roster before the series starts Saturday. No matter which goalie is in net, the defense will need to pack the slot and keep the talented Charlotte offense to the perimeter of the zone. If the Checkers are allowed to penetrate the slot at will, this will be a very short series. Providence did a good job during the regular season, but will need to be more consistent to win a series.
The Bruins will need to find some offense as well, even if defense is the name of the game. Carey and Szwarz will lead the way, but Providence need players like Gemel Smith (16G, 24A, 40 Pts.) and Peter Cehlarik (12G, 26A, 38 Pts.) to contribute as well. If the Bruins can get just two or three goals from three or four guys to go with random solo efforts, that could be enough to win a low-scoring series.
The Bruins must also take care of home-ice in games one and two. Ideally you win both, but Providence must absolutely earn at least a split. Once the series heads to North Carolina, it isn’t coming back. If Providence is able to defend well and win early, however, the will go to Charlotte with confidence and momentum. The Checkers, meanwhile, would head home dejected and feeling extreme pressure to avoid a first-round exit. This has the ingredients of a potential upset; the Bruins just have to get the recipe right.
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