Providence Benefits From Reset By Young Stars
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
Mark Jankowski and Jon Gillies headline Providence's sophomore class. Before this duo arrived a year ago, the Calgary Flames selected the pair — Jankowski in the first round and Gillies in the third — of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
Draft status only makes the transition from junior or prep hockey to the Division I level even more difficult for some players. Even with the talent and expectations, the first two seasons with the Friars have been very different for Jankowski and Gillies.
Gillies was the unquestioned starter for PC as a freshman and thrived in the role. Jankowski, however, came as one of the nation's youngest players. As a sophomore, he's still the second youngest player on the Friars' roster. Last year, the gifted forward struggled to contribute regularly to the PC attack. An 18-point (seven goals and 11 assists) campaign to start a collegiate career is hardly a bad first impression. There was always something more there for Jankowski, though.
For Gillies, his issues came in the first few months of the season's second half. After starting the year with a .941 save percentage in his first 15 games, he struggled in January and February after returning from the World Junior tournament. The club went the same way.
Their recent resurgence has led to Providence's run.
"He’s still the second-youngest player on our team, and I think it’s just the evolution of Mark (Jankowski) and the evolution of a player there," Leaman said.
"Against UMass, he had both game winners, so I think you hit it dead on," Leaman continued. "It’s just his evolution. He’s going to keep getting better and better and better. He enjoys these moments, I can tell you that. He likes these moments. He wants the puck on his stick."
Gillies was a lot of the same, learning not just to be a talented goaltender but a big-time Division I player.
"We had a lot of conversations, but it wasn’t to refocus Jon," Leaman said. "Jon is very focused. He’s a kid that’s extremely committed. He lives the game. He breathes the game. He loves the game. You don’t have to worry about Jon’s focus or his commitment."
In PC's last six games, Jankowski has three goals and three assists, including two points in last weekend's sweep of Maine in the Hockey East quarterfinals. Gillies has been even better, posting a .945 save percentage in the last six games — all Providence wins.
The less-heralded members of the Friars' sophomore class have performed just as well of late. Whether it's Nick Saracino, Noel Acciari or Brandon Tanev, the PC's second-years have found their roles within the club and led the way to Friday's Hockey East semifinal matchup with New Hampshire.
Saracino scored twice in last Saturday's win over Maine to send PC to TD Garden. Acciari has six points in his last games, including a goal in each end of a sweep at Maine to end the regular season. The wins helped PC clinch home ice in the Hockey East Quarterfinals. Leaman saw some of the group's potential a season ago.
"I think they had an outstanding freshman year," Leaman said. "I can tell you that. For them to play, you know we played 10 freshmen every game, and for those guys to be one win away from winning the first Hockey East Regular Season Championship for our program, I consider that a pretty good freshman year."
The potential for regression exists just as well.
"We missed the NCAA tournament, so now the goal over the summer was to get those guys to mature, to get those guys to grow up, because when you do have a lot of success your freshman year, you can kind of sit back and think, hey, this college stuff is pretty cool," he said. "We get to go to the rink every day, we’re hockey, we’re a part of a big campus here, and they can lose a little bit of that urgency, that desperation to improve every day."
While the group and club as a whole struggled at times this season, Leaman never saw a lack of motivation hurt his team.
It's hardly just the sophomores contributing for Providence. However, the group represents both Leaman's prowess to bring talent to Schneider Arena and the potential for this program moving forward. The chance that Gillies signs a professional contract following the season is very real. Leaman is certainly capable of finding a more-than-adequate replacement for his star netminder.
PC advanced to the Hockey East Semifinals in each of the last two seasons, falling to the eventual champions in each season. This edition of the Friars is better-equipped to advance past that first game, and this talented group of sophomores is ready to get them to Saturday's title showdown.
A matchup win UNH Friday night stands in their way. The Wildcats have just as much to prove and play for as the Friars. Aside from status as the champion of Hockey East, a bid to the NCAA tournament is especially close. Leaman knows it won't be one player that wins a game for his team this weekend. He knows different members of each class must step up. But, after the last few weeks, he also knows his sophomores are just the guys to do it.