Providence Passing Each Test
Hockey East Play Awaits Undefeated Friars
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
PROVIDENCE Last March, Providence welcomed Massachusetts-Lowell to Schneider Arena on the final night of the regular season. A win, for the Friars, meant a Hockey East Regular Season Championship.
Nate Leaman thinks about that night a lot. Tied, 1-1, early in the third period, the Friars allowed three consecutive goals to UMass-Lowell. A championship lost in their own building — a championship no one outside of Schneider Arena thought they could win.
Those memories of a third period that cost his team a trophy don't well up on their own. They come after questions. Questions about the progress Providence has made since Leaman became the Friars' head coach a little more than two years ago. Questions about their status as a legitimate contender in Hockey East and nationally. It's impossible for Leaman to answer those questions right now. He can only point to the statements his young team makes on the ice each weekend.
Through three weekends of the 2013-14 college hockey season, Leaman doesn't have to defend much. The Friars are 4-0-1 this year. Three of their four wins came against teams — Minnesota State and Miami — expected to win their respective leagues. The fourth win, a 10-4 thrashing of American International, said more than a victory of AIC should. Winning games you should is one thing, steamrolling a bad team like a truly great college hockey team should is another.
So even after squandering a third-period lead Saturday night and ending a weekend with Miami in a 4-4 tie, Leaman's club has proved it can play with the best and beat them.
A year ago, Providence's success started and ended with goaltender Jon Gillies. Then a freshman, Gillies was plainly the best goaltender in the nation, backstopping a team that, from a talent standpoint, was outclassed by all of Hockey East's other true contenders. Gillies remains the Friars' biggest weapon. Through four starts this year, Gillies boasts a 1.71 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage. He's their best player, the biggest reason they'll win championships if they do. Leaman's adamant, though, that Gillies isn't the only weapon he has.
"I fully realize Jon is going to get a lot of press, and it's well deserved," Leaman said. "We have a team. Coming into the weekend, we were leading the nation in scoring. Jon can't score. We have a team, and we like our team. The thing I like most about our team is that I see a lot of areas of improvement. I feel like if we work hard, and we take it one day at a time, I see a lot of areas that we can keep getting better and better."
A year ago, the Friars finished fifth in Hockey East in scoring. At five on five, they were third. Undone by a unproductive power play (14.7 percent), Leaman and his staff focused on the area in the offseason. Through five games, the unit has improved drastically, scoring on seven of 35 chances. Even great teams have weaknesses, but a power play that scores fewer than 15 percent of the time isn't acceptable.
"We had enough to compete last year," Leaman said. "We were third in our league in scoring 5-on-5. We didn't have a power play last year at all. That was our downfall against Lowell in the (Hockey East semifinals) and against Lowell at home for the league title. We were 0-for-6 or 0-for-7 in those games."
Against Miami last weekend, Providence scored on three of its 12 man advantages, including an overtime winner from freshman Niko Rufo on Friday. The unit improved as the game progressed. Still, Leaman knew some changes needed to come ahead of Saturday. The difference for PC now, compared to seasons past, is those answers are in the locker room. The Friars have enough talent to score consistently.
"We stood around. (Miami was) just holding lanes. We stood, and we stood, and we stood," Leaman said. "We showed them a little film on it. It was more just getting back in the mentality that we need to control the pace on the power play. I thought the guys did a good job (Saturday night)."
Even with improvements in one area, the Friars struggled in others. Building a winning team takes more than talent. It requires a mindset that holds leads once they're established. Penalties are the downfall of any team, especially an inexperienced team still constructing a winning identity. PC wins both games against Miami if it takes fewer penalties.
"We took some bad penalties, and we let them back in the game," Leaman said on Saturday night. "That has to be the lesson that comes out of the weekend. We can't take bad penalties like that.
"The biggest thing we have to improve is not taking poor penalties. There's a question on us, can we score? That's not a question anymore. We're playing 14 freshmen and sophomores every night. It's about us trying to improve one day at a time. We can't take poor penalties. It's the biggest thing for us, but I like what I've seen so far."
A 4-0-1 start, averaging 5 goals per game and a vastly improved power play are all reasons for Leaman to like his team chances thus far. Making improvements from week to week is the next step, especially as Hockey East play begins in earnest next weekend. A home-and-home pair with Boston University awaits the Friars.
Regardless of the results against the Terriers and in the coming months, that game last March against UMass-Lowell will be discussed again. The game that cost Providence a championship will remain a natural benchmark until the Friars reach another. Leaman expects his team to reach those type of situations again this season. If October's five games are any indication, the memory of that night in March and the questions it caused may very well fade soon.