Providence and the Coming Crucible
by Ryan Lambert/Columnist
It was a funny thing to sit there on Saturday afternoon and listen to Nate Leaman talk about what he liked from his team's performance in what has to be seen as a disappointing if understandable lack of a win against Merrimack. Providence College played the Warriors three times and lost not one of them, and stood at 13-3-4, and in terms of what he liked from the experience, Leaman strangely highlighted the time they spent not playing.
“It was very much like an NCAA game in the fact that there was long stoppages,” he said. “The TV timeouts were supposed to be a minute, but because they were fixing the ice, a lot of times those TV timeouts turned out to be two minutes or three minutes. That's a lot like an NCAA game in that you can start to build momentum and then there's a long stoppage, so you have to refocus, regroup, and you're always starting from scratch in those games.”
Funny though it may be to find any coach talking about the NCAA tournament on Jan. 4, it's something to which Leaman must now look forward for the first time since he left Union. The Friars, again, have only lost three of their 20 games, and ended the weekend sitting fourth in the Pairwise. However, they did it against the 26th-hardest schedule in the country, brought down by this most recent stretch of games in which they've faced very few teams which could be viewed as “hard outs,” so to speak. Since Thanksgiving, the Friars' schedule has included Brown, Northeastern, Army, Dartmouth, Air Force, Merrimack, and then Northeastern again on Tuesday, the teams ranked 32, 18, 59, 49, 41, 44, and 18 again in the KRACH through the weekend. Which is to say these are games the Friars should win, and largely have.
Despite the fact that this is a likely NCAA berth — the Friars' first since 2001 — we're talking about, it has been earned largely on the back of pummeling not-great opponents. The only teams against which it has played that are in the PWR top-16 are UNH and Quinnipiac, and against those teams it went 1-1-1. It's played 10 of its 20 games away from home and of the eight it has failed to win, five were outside the friendly confines of Schneider Arena. The team may be second in Hockey East with 13 points from 10 games, but there are legitimate questions to be asked about whether it will be able to effectively hold onto that high spot, or improve upon it. That's especially true considering the crushing home overtime defeat at the hands of the Northeastern Huskies, who spent most of the game looking wholly overmatched, save for netminder Clay Witt.
“This is twice we've played them, and we've put close to 100 shots on net, and we've scored four goals against him,” Leaman said. “Part of it is I thought we need to bear down a bit around the net, but the other part is, y'know, give him credit.”
Those questions, though, are about to be answered. While there was the occasional trial prior to this part of the season (the home split with UNH, the weekend home sweep of Miami), the next five weeks will probably be able to tell us a lot about the Friars' ability to hang with highly-skilled and demonstratively well-coached teams. Friday, they visit BC. After a two-game series at Colorado College (two more games they should win against the 44th team in the KRACH), they have a home-and-home with Lowell. A week later it's BC again, then a Tuesday date with UConn before hosting Notre Dame. BC, Lowell, Notre Dame: The teams picked by the coaches to occupy the top three spots in the league at the beginning of the season. All of them currently in a position to make the tournament “if the season ended today,” which it does not.
“I said this against Merrimack, I mean there's no easy games in this league,” Leaman said. “We've got seven teams in the top 20 right now in our league, and if you look at our record, everything's coming down to one goal, one way or the other. [On Tuesday] we lost a one-goal game.”
The good news for the Friars is they have Jon Gillies back after he missed the games against Army, Dartmouth, Air Force, and Merrimack while serving the U.S. at World Juniors, even if he took the disappointing loss. That obviously helps immensely. It's going to have to.
The Friars have 68 goals in 21 this season, good for 125h in the nation at 3.24 a night. Nonetheless, they have just one player with a double-digit goal total: probable Hockey East first-team forward Ross Mauermann. He has 28 points this season, and the next-closest Friar on the scoresheet is Nick Saracino at just 14. This is a team that very much scores by committee, despite not getting a particularly large number of shots on goal per game (33.81, 12th in the country). However, Mauermann has just two goals in his last seven games, after opening the year with 12 in 14. Someone is going to need to step up and take his place, but no one has. This is a team which has lately found itself desperately in need not only of secondary scoring, but primary as well.
“We talked about it,” Leaman said. “It's not generating the chances, it's finishing the chances. We're not bearing down. We get a rebound with an empty net in the third period, and we put it back into the goalie. We're not bearing down, and I thought it started against Army. When we played Army, we were lax in that game, we were lax around the net. It's carried over right now.”
But they're going to have to do it in this, the teeth of the schedule. While no results, short of catastrophic failure, are likely to sink their NCAA chances — and even then, losses to teams of that quality won't hurt that much — the Friars hang in a precarious position, and Leaman has to hope they can answer the challenge.
One should note that they haven't shown any particular amount of lasting success against high-quality teams in the past; against Lowell in the last two seasons they're 4-6-0, and against BC they're 1-5-1. Maybe that's about where an emerging program should be.
So are they a paper tiger, as much a one-player team as some might be led to believe? Or are they a for-real threat to the already-new natural order of things, so recently established with Lowell winning Hockey East?
We're about to find out, but while this stretch may not tell the college hockey world everything it needs to know about Providence, it's probably going to tell us a lot. Maybe, though, that we're even having this conversation tells us plenty already.
“I don't see one game on our schedule and say, 'Oh, this is a measuring stick,'” Leaman said. “I think every team in our league brings something different and every team in our league is a challenge. This is what I expected coming into the year: A lot of close games, and we've got to be the team that finds a way to win these games. In the first half, we were. Right now, we didn't finish that game [Tuesday] and found a way to lose the game. I think everyone's going to be going through this in our league. It's a tight league.”
Air Force: The Falcons split with AIC, which is not an acceptable result. Even without your starting goalie, I don't know how you let them score four on you if you're Air Force.
American International: That 4-3 OT win, by the way, was the Yellow Jackets' first W since Nov. 15.
Army: The Black Knights suffered a pair of 3-1 defeats at the hands of Mercyhurst, but outshot them a combined 62-43. Coach Brian Riley liked the effort but thought maybe they could score more than twice in a weekend next time. The last time Army scored more than twice in a game, though, was Nov. 27.
Bentley: Bentley's unbeaten streak finally came to an end on Saturday with a 5-3 home loss to Niagara. Still, getting to 7-0-2 in the previous nine is a pretty good way to improve one's chances of winning the conference. They're now just three points back of league-leading Mercyhurst after starting the year with one win from their first nine games.
Canisius: In Saturday's game, the visiting Griffs were outshot 13-1 by Holy Cross in the first period and still hung on to win 3-0. That's not a bad sweep.
Connecticut: Brant Harris had a hat trick, and that would have been enough to beat RIT all by itself, but his teammates added another three goals to cap a weekend sweep. The three goals also doubled Harris's season total.
Holy Cross: Crusaders forward Brett McKinnon shouldn't make promises he can't keep. “We're having a tough time scoring right now, but we'll figure it out this week,” he said after that sweep at the hands of Canisius. Holy Cross has 39 goals in 19 games, which you'll note is not many.
Mercyhurst: This headline made me sad.
Niagara: That 5-3 victory at Bentley on Saturday? It was Niagara's first road win of the season. They've played 13 away from home. Thirteen!
RIT: The Tigers' power play went 0 for 6 over the weekend, which is notable only because it came in with the fourth-best man advantage in the country. That'll happen, though.
Robert Morris: The first half of the season was unequivocally awful for the Colonials, but at least they had Sacred Heart on the schedule this weekend. They got a pair of 2-1 wins, which sounds reasonable for all involved.
Sacred Heart: If you really want to win, you usually need more than 50 shots in a weekend, though.
Brown: You know things are going sideways in Colorado when Denver and CC are giving up three of four points to Brown at home, but your boys Matt Lorito, Nick Lappin, and Mark Naclerio combined for five goals and seven assists in those games.
Clarkson: Steve Perry was very good for the Golden Knights on Friday in stopping 38 of 39 against UMass Lowell. Saturday's 10-of-14 performance? Not so much.
Colgate: Hands up if you had Colgate winning the Marriuci Classic. Okay put your hands down, liars.
Cornell: Here's a nice feature on Cole Bardreau, who has gotten so used to beating Russians that it's not even a big deal any more.
Dartmouth: Dartmouth refuses to beat Hockey East opponents any more, and now will only tie them. Very noble.
Harvard: Harvard and BU went a combined 5 for 12 on the power play, which is good. But it also means they went a combined 7 for 12 on the penalty kill, which is not. Harvard was 1 of 4 down a man, and thus the headline of the linked article is extraordinarily misleading.
Princeton: I wonder if “playing in weird Canadian exhibition tournaments” is going to become a thing. The Tigers pounded Simon Fraser 8-1, but then were shut out by British Columbia, 1-0.
Quinnipiac: Might wanna cover that Samuels-Thomas kid. Hear he's pretty good.
RPI: Whenever you give up 12 goals in a weekend, you didn't do as well as you probably should have.
St. Lawrence: Greg Carey was named the North Country's local athlete of the year, which makes sense because he had approximately a billion points in 2013.
Union: Rick Bennett named as a potential coach for the U.S. World Junior team next year. Also named: former Union coach Nate Leaman. I would accept either one. No more Lucias.
Yale: The Bulldogs never trailed in their 3-all tie at Vermont, but blew two leads in the third period, so that's something to work on for sure.
Boston College: Did you know: Boston College's top line is the best in the country? Well jeepers buddy, it sure is. Not sure how anyone stops them.
Boston University: It is generally not advisable to take nine penalties in a game, or give up five even-strength goals in same. That will seriously put you behind the 8-ball.
Maine: Wake me up when Maine can beat someone good in a town other than Orono. Until then, I am going to consider them soft. They still haven't beaten anyone in an actual away venue, as that “big” W over Princeton was at a neutral site.
Massachusetts: The Minutemen gave up a pair of third-period goals in a road loss to Northeastern that surprised no people on earth.
Massachusetts-Lowell: As mentioned above, the River Hawks only scored once on 39 shots, but then four on 14 the next night. Altogether, that evens out to five goals on 53 shots, or 9.4 percent shooting, almost in line with their season-long percentage of 9.2 percent. Hockey is very predictable in this way.
Merrimack: Rasmus Tirronen was pretty much the only reason Providence didn't beat Merrimack on Saturday, because from the look of things that Warriors offense was never coming up with more than one goal.
New Hampshire: The Wildcats' top line and pairing have been phenomenal of late. They combined for 8-14-22 in two games against Nebraska-Omaha. That is what I am talking about when I say “phenomenal.”
Northeastern: Is Clay Witt the reason the Huskies are nationally ranked? Ask Providence after Tuesday's game. The answer is an unequivocal yes.
Notre Dame: Jeff Jackson I cannot thank you enough.
Providence: Derek Army likes the Yankees and Kevin Rooney likes the Red Sox. That made the Fenway game so ironic, you see, for this original odd couple.
Vermont: Vermont is another team about which we have to hear how hot they are. They have one loss in the last 10 games, etc. Their opponents in that time? UMass, road-team Maine, St. Lawrence, Northeastern (the loss in question), Clarkson, Canisius, Dartmouth, and Yale. It tied the latter two opponents. They're 4-5-0 in Hockey East for a reason.
Player of the Week
UNH's Matt Willows had four goals and an assist this weekend, so that's good.
The Johnny Gaudreau Goal of the Week
Might as well just make it official. Goal in question at 5:38.