Providence's Ascension Hits a Snag
by Michael King/Staff Writer
BOSTON Jon Gillies sat in his crease for several seconds. The goaltender had just surrendered his team’s third goal at the end of the second period. The posture reflected parts frustration and disbelief. But it also manifested the thoughts of many Providence fans in attendance: there’s a difference between reaching the TD Garden and winning a game at the Garden.
For the third-straight season, the Friars were eliminated from the Hockey East playoffs in the semifinals. PC fell to New Hampshire on Friday night, 3-1. The Wildcats face Massachusetts-Lowell Saturday night for the Hockey East title.
Providence is likely to see its season continue in the NCAA tournament. However, failure to reach the conference final may represent a lack of progress in coach Nate Leaman’s program when the season closes.
In his first year in 2011-12, the Friars exceeded expectations by reaching the semifinals despite finishing the season with a losing record (14-20-4). PC upset No. 2 seed Massachusetts-Lowell in the best-of-three quarterfinal series. The Friars bowed to eventual champion Boston College, but the process indicated the promise of an inexperienced, but talented squad.
Providence then executed on that potential last year, remaining in contention for the Hockey East title until the last weekend of the regular season. The Friars continued their growth by dispatching UNH at home in three games and returned to the Garden. But again, Providence fell to the eventual champion; this time, UMass-Lowell.
The Friars appeared well-positioned for a breakthrough to the final this year, as the regular season champion (BC) lost in the quarterfinals.
PC, however, had no response to the Wildcats’ resurgent offense led by senior Kevin Goumas (two goals). Gillies and the PC defense suffered from several defensive breakdowns. And facing a team that averages a pedestrian 2.59 goals per game, the Friars expected a better offensive result.
“I didn’t think we were moving our feet very well; we were reaching for a lot of pucks, that’s why we were turning it over,” Leaman said. “That makes for losing a lot of battles in the neutral zone. We didn’t play our style of hockey, which is getting [into the zone] hard and getting pucks and men to the net. I don’t think we had a second-chance opportunity until the third period.”
However, Leaman believes that losing to the Wildcats – though disappointing – could boost the development of his team. The Friars are largely paced by their younger players, especially their stellar group of sophomores.
“It starts with having some good practices. But I think this can be a positive if we learn from it,” he said.
Though reaching the Hockey East finals is no longer a possibility this year for Leaman’s program, the NCAA tournament would represent a significant milestone for Providence. The Friars have not qualified for post-season competition beyond the conference tournament since 2000-01.
At the same time, it’s fair for PC fans to feel disappointment if the Friars don’t reach their regional final and at minimum compete for a spot in the Frozen Four. This sentiment is partially derived from uncertainties surrounding the future of the current group of PC stars.
The turnaround from Leaman’s first year was largely led by his exceptional 2012 recruiting class, including Gillies (.930 save percentage) and center Mark Jankowski (12-12-24). It’s probable that both players – and others on the roster – could receive offers for professional hockey contracts based on their high levels of production.
Yet, Leaman maintains a confident belief in his players and program. He knows his core will return next year and further develop the program, regardless of the star players’ decisions.
“We still have a young team – only three seniors. So you have to learn from these games, you have to grow from these games,” Leaman said. “It’s the only way you’re going to be successful, but I’m confident that we can do it. We weren’t very good tonight, but we have three or four days to get better in we’re fortunate enough to make the NCAA tournament.”
And the Friar faithful – many of whom sat in their seats Saturday night, inadvertently mimicking the physical and emotional reaction of Gillies – will hold judgment on the season as the team has one final chance to establish progress.