Providence Breaks Through to Garden in Leaman's First Season
by Scott McLaughlin/CHN Writer
LOWELL, Mass. After getting swept by Massachusetts-Lowell to end the regular season, Providence coach Nate Leaman was asked if it felt good — despite the disappointing finish — to lead the team to the playoffs in his first season after it had missed out each of the last three years. Instead of breaking out a cliché like, "It's always nice to make the playoffs," he seemed almost irritated by the question.
"I have a higher standard for the program," Leaman responded. "I'll just leave it at that. I have a much higher standard for the program."
Over the next week, Leaman drilled it into his players that there was no room for a "happy to be here" attitude. Despite getting outscored 19-3 over their last four regular-season games, despite not having a single player who had played a Hockey East playoff game, and despite being decided underdogs against the same Lowell team that had just swept them, Leaman fully expected the Friars to reach the TD Garden for the semifinals.
The message clearly sunk in, because at no point over the weekend did the Friars look overwhelmed or overmatched. The same team that had averaged a measly one goal per game over its last six came out and potted five in a Game 1 victory. The Friars outplayed the River Hawks for much of Game 2 as well, but wound up falling 3-2 in overtime.
After what could have been a tough pill to swallow, Leaman said that his players weren't hanging their heads. Instead, he said he saw the same things after Game 2 that he had seen all week in practice — hunger and desperation.
Those attributes were on display in the Friars' 1-0 Game 3 victory that sent them to the Garden for the first time in 11 years. They once again controlled play for most of the game, and they prevented the River Hawks from producing anything more than an occasional grade-A scoring chance.
Unlike their last four regular-season games, the Friars got good backchecking from their forwards, forced opponents to the outside and blocked shots. When pucks did get through, senior goalie Alex Beaudry — who was great all weekend — was up to the challenge.
"I saw in practice this week that we were just a lot more detail-oriented," Leaman said after the series. "The guys were really plugged in. Despite this team not having a player to ever be in the playoffs, they were extremely sharp and they were focused and they were hungry, and that's the key. I really think you have to be hungry and desperate this time of year. You can't have the attitude that you're happy to be there."
Another key to the Friars' turnaround from regular season to postseason was the return of leading goal-scorer Tim Schaller. The first-line center — who missed the last five regular-season games with an undisclosed injury — registered just one point in the series against Lowell, but according to Leaman and Providence players, Schaller's impact can't be measured just by looking at numbers.
"I think getting Timmy back helped our confidence a lot," Leaman said. "It makes a difference in our lineup because everyone kind of gets in their correct role. When we're without him, we're asking guys to do things that are really out of their character and really out of their roles, and it just doesn't sync well. With Timmy back, everything kind of syncs well for us."
The synchronized lines paid off, as each of Providence's top three lines tallied at least four points on the weekend. The Friars are now averaging 3.04 goals per game in 25 games with Schaller in the lineup, compared to just 1.33 in 12 games without him (he also missed six games early in the second half due to mono).
Although the Friars turned things around both offensively and defensively last weekend, they will be seen as an even bigger underdog Friday night against Boston College than they were against Lowell. It's easy to see why. The Eagles have reeled off 13 straight wins, and they outscored Providence 10-0 in a series sweep just two and a half weeks ago.
The Friars know they will have to continue play solid team defense and continue to wreak havoc on the forecheck if they hope to have any chance of beating BC. They also know they will have to stay hungry and not become satisfied with exceeding the expectations of those outside the program.
"We want to make sure that we're not setting up an atmosphere whatsoever that we get complacent or we feel happy to be going to Boston," Leaman said. "We have a higher standard than that. We have a higher goal than that. ... The focus has to be laser-like. The detail has to be extremely good. The work ethic and the battle level have to be good each day at our practice, and that will carry over into the game.
"So that's kind of been the focus right now with us, is using the confidence that you've built to add a little swagger, but not letting that get to arrogance whatsoever, not letting that lead to complacency or letting us slip away at all from what made us successful last weekend against a very good Lowell team."