Friars On the Up
Providence Takes Loss Knowing It Can Return
by Michael King/Staff Writer
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. It’s not discussed at length by players and coaches after a season-ending loss. Terms like ‘next year’ and ‘potential’ are not part of the discourse. Among fans, however, the decompression process is typically accelerated and conversation about the future begins immediately.
In the case of Providence, which lost to Union, 3-1, Saturday afternoon in the East Regional final, the potential is tangible. The Friars strung together a successful season despite being one of the younger teams in college hockey.
PC had the talent to reach the Frozen Four, but the path was through one of the best teams in the nation. Led by dynamic defenseman and Hobey Baker Award finalist Shayne Gostisbehere, the Dutchmen were too powerful for coach Nate Leaman and his Friars.
“I think we were playing our best hockey at the end of the year and I was really proud of the guys,” Leaman said. “We have three seniors, and their experience is really important in the big moments. But I think we’re growing.”
Like other teams, PC will lose some key pieces to graduation. But this list is limited to defensemen Steven Shamanski and Kevin Hart, as well as forward Derek Army.
Shamanski offered dependable leadership as co-captain from the blueline, along with the support of Hart. Army’s consistency over four years is remarkable, as he played in the second-most games in program history.
Given that, Providence has the very real potential to be the best team in Hockey East next year. This assessment extends from the team’s inner circle to the outer reaches of the conference’s fan base.
“I expect them to be back here again next year,” Shamanski said. “They’re only losing three guys and the younger guys here are really talented. I expect nothing less for them to be back here playing to go to [the Frozen Four].”
This, of course, is dependent on the roster remaining intact with all professional opportunities spurned until a future time.
The team’s rapid ascent in Leaman’s third year was built around a reliable net presence. Sophomore Jon Gillies offered the foundation from which the defensive pairings and forward lines could operate most effectively. Strong goaltending is critical for a young team because if players can trust the goalie to stop shots, then they can be solely concerned about their own responsibilities. Inexperienced players start to make mistakes when circumstances split their focus.
Naturally, the prospect of Gillies leaving the Friars is the most documented possible departure.
Others, including sophomore Mark Jankowski, have the potential to eventually make an impact at the next level. Most talent evaluators in the game agree that Jankowski could most efficiently further his development by remaining in Providence for at least another season.
While the talent of his two sophomore stars largely characterized 2013-14, Leaman’s first team had a much simpler approach to the game without reliance on high-end goal scoring or elite goaltending. That squad exceeded expectations as it fought through a challenging season and exposed the possibility of future success by winning a quarterfinal HEA playoff series against Massachusetts-Lowell. Two years ago, the Friars returned to the Garden and narrowly missed out on the NCAA tournament.
This season’s increased definition of success was developed from the achievements of those teams. And again, the roster composition in October may further raise the expectations. Accomplishments like a Hockey East championship and a Frozen Four appearance will become the minimum acceptable standard without defections.
If Gillies signs with the NHL's Calgary Flames (third round selection, 2012), however, then the team’s realistic goals must be dampened if the net question is not addressed. Outside of the South Portland, Maine, native, the Friars maintain only six games of experience on its roster between freshmen Nick Ellis and Brendan Leahy.
Either may excel given the opportunity. Though, there are few better hockey prospects at any position than Gillies. Size, positional awareness, and athleticism all describe his style. An improved, more experienced defense will assist the transition of a new starter. But Gillies’ ability to mask the mistakes of his teammates – a special player in a special position to impact the game – will be missed.
Even in Saturday’s loss to Union, the sophomore played well (28 saves) despite surrendering three goals. The six-foot-five goalie largely controlled shots and prevented rebounds – even through Union’s early pressure.
“I thought he played very well, especially early in the game,” Leaman said. “They were getting second and third opportunities in our zone and we were struggling with executing out of our end. Part of it was us and part of it was them working so hard. I thought he kept us in the game early.”
As Gillies was the key building block, the program’s upward trajectory really began in Leaman’s first year when the coach took over for Tim Army and began to mold the program in his image.
“I think once coach Leaman came in he focused on discipline and executing our systems well,” Shamanski said. “Once we started to adjust to that, we really became a strong team and started to play a 60-minute team game.”
Though the Friars failed to reach the Hockey East championship game for the third-consecutive season after a semi-final loss, PC reached the NCAAs for the first time since 2001. Friday’s win over Quinnipiac represented its first tournament victory since 1991.
This is true progress.
While Friar fans can’t control what happens off the ice before the start of next season, they should derive a sense of comfort knowing that Leaman is continuing to build a winner in Providence.