Second-year professional Craig Cunningham surpassed his rookie season total of 20 goals with the icebreaker and later a power-play conversion that nudged the Providence Bruins past the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, 3-1, Friday night.
The win gives the Baby Bs the best winning percentage in the AHL’s Eastern Conference (.659) going into Saturday’s action. They trail only the Syracuse Crunch by a single point with a game in hand.
Perhaps more critically, it puts Providence in a realistic position to cement a long-awaited Calder Cup playoff berth between now and its next home game.
The P-Bruins have already consumed 34 of their 38 dates at the Dunkin' Donuts Center, where they are an irreproachable 22-9-3. The next two-plus weekends will pose a measuring pole in the climax of the regular season as they play the next seven contests on the road.
Through their first 29 games on enemy ice, the Bruins are a less sparkling, but still decent 17-10-2, with a cumulative 77-77 scoring differential.
Lately, they have gone 8-1-2 in their last 11 away games dating back to the final weekend of January. But they are now at a point where they will need to be ready to embrace the notion of a target on their back.
The first two installments of this road swing will be a pair of divisional season-series finales against Worcester and Portland on Saturday and Wednesday, respectively.
Saturday’s tilt at the DCU Center constitutes the last call for the Sharks to restore the upper hand they had on Providence earlier in the season. They are winless (0-3-2) against the P-Bruins since New Year’s after going 5-0-1 through November and December of 2012.
For Providence, this last virtual four-point purse equals a chance to hasten the clinching process. The Sharks are trying to claw back into the playoff picture and trail the Bruins by 20 points with 16 games left and, therefore, a maximum 32 points left to gain.
A regulation win Saturday would amount to a magic number of four to officially get out of Worcester’s reach in the standings. Albany, Manchester and Norfolk are the other barnacles to cast off before the formality of stamping the postseason passport is finished.
The Portland Pirates, meanwhile, are the only realistic threat to the P-Bruins’ regal position in the Atlantic Division. In turn, this coming Wednesday’s tilt at the Cumberland County Civic Center is a chance to tighten the stranglehold on that ticket to automatic home ice in the first round.
The subsequent two weekends will see Providence venturing into Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Hershey, Albany, Manchester and Connecticut. Based on its own position and that of the coming adversaries, one of those last three games during the first weekend of April should mark the end of this franchise’s four-year playoff drought.
Alex and Alex Arrive
The past calendar week and the past two P-Bruins games have seen the professional debuts of both pieces of compensation that Boston obtained in the Chuck Kobasew trade in October 2009. That deal saw Kobasew exported to Minnesota in exchange for the rights to a then-Harvard freshman named Alexander Fallstrom and a second-round draft pick in 2011.
Fallstrom’s collegiate career ended on March 10, rendering him ready to pen an AHL amateur tryout pact a week later. He joined Providence the day after signing his contract and made a prompt impact, garnering the secondary assist on Max Sauve’s icebreaker en route to a 3-1 win over Manchester last Sunday.
Alexander Khokhlachev, selected with that aforementioned second-round pick, shuffled over to Providence a week after his Windsor Spitfires finished their OHL season. He picked up one shot on goal and a tripping penalty in Friday’s 3-1 triumph over Bridgeport.
College, Junior Notes
Freshman Matt Grzelcyk will join Boston University in Saturday’s Hockey East championship game at the TD Garden versus UMass-Lowell. The Terriers surmounted an initial 2-0 deficit with five unanswered goals, the third of which was assisted by Grzelcyk, for an eventual 6-3 vanquishing of Boston College in Friday night’s semifinal.
Another rookie blueliner and Bruins prospect, Rob O’Gara, is pursuing third place in the ECAC tournament with the Yale Bulldogs. After losing to Union, 5-0, in the semifinals, they face a regal Quinnipiac program in Saturday’s consolation game.
Paradoxically, as of Saturday morning, Yale is tied for eighth on USCHO’s PairWise Ranking leaderboard whereas BU is tied for 17th. Accordingly, O’Gara should be bound for the NCAA tournament while Grzelcyk’s team needs to beat the RiverHawks to extend its 2012-13 campaign.
The playoffs are already underway in the Ontario League, and all four major-junior teams still boasting a Boston draftee hold a 1-0 lead in their respective first-round series.
In the Eastern Conference, Belleville’s Malcolm Subban repelled 25-of-26 shots and indulged in eight goals of support for a Game 1 win over Mississauga. Anthony Camara drove the dagger into an empty Kingston Frontenacs net to give his Barrie Colts the upper hand, which they will try to extend Saturday.
Out west, Seth Griffith was held pointless, but partook in a 5-2 Friday victory for the London Knights over Saginaw. Cody Payne tossed in a brownie biscuit as part of the Plymouth Whalers’ 11-2 annihilation of the Sarnia Sting.