Last season was a landmark year in Hockey East, as a team other than Boston College, Boston University, Maine or New Hampshire won the league’s championship tournament for the first time since 1996. Not only that, but those four teams were shut out of the regular season title for the first time ever in the league’s 29-year history.
UMass-Lowell, of course, continued its historic run all the way to the Frozen Four after winning both of those Hockey East titles, and the River Hawks’ unprecedented success signaled the possibility of real change among the league’s elite.
What got lost in all of the hoopla around UMass-Lowell, however, was the fact that there was another team that seemed to have an inside track on breaking the stranglehold the “big four” held on the league’s hardware.
Providence’s 2012-13 season didn’t have anywhere near the history of Lowell’s, after the Friars came up short in their hunt for both the regular season and tournament titles. In fact, it was the River Hawks that ended both of those quests – first, with a 4-1 win over the Friars in the last game of the regular season, and then in the league semifinals. UMass-Lowell rode its late season success all the way to Pittsburgh and the NCAA semifinals. The Friars’ season ended on the TD Garden ice after the River Hawks beat them 2-1 to advance to the Hockey East championship.
If the early returns this season are any indication, Providence learned its lesson from its own almost-historic season. The Friars are off to a red-hot start, and they hit the Christmas break in a tie with Boston College for first place in Hockey East. They’ve got one of the league’s best goaltenders in South Portland, Maine, native Jon Gillies, and junior Ross Mauermann is having a breakout season, tied for second place on the league’s scoring chart with 24 points (12 goals).
Although Providence still trots out a lineup full of youngsters – 14 of the 20 players who dress every night are freshmen or sophomores – plenty of them have experienced the highs and lows of a college season, and last year’s rises and falls taught them well.
“We’re a year older,” said coach Nate Leaman, now in his third season. “We played, regularly, nine to 10 freshmen last year, and anytime you do that going to have some ups and downs and go through some growth, and that’s what we did. The goal for us this summer was to keep growing, and to basically grow up.”
While there were plenty of things for the Friars to be proud of last year, Gillies said coming so close to having some hardware and falling short is what’s driving the team this season.
“It just added motivation, there’s nothing else to it,” said Gillies, whose .941 save percentage is fifth in the nation and second in Hockey East only to Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck (.947). “It made us that much hungrier this season. Being as close as that to a trophy, where we had two trophies – the regular season title, all we had to do was win a game, and then we got knocked out in the semifinals by the same team that beat us in the regular season title game.
“It’s tough, but when you look at how this program’s transformed in the last couple years, while it’s disappointing, it’s a stepping stone, it’s a building block.”
Gillies, a sophomore who will soon join Team USA for the World Junior Championships in Malmo, Sweden, is one of the young stars on a team full of them, and he said he and his classmates are taking that next step the team needs.
“It’s really showing this year, the freshmen last year are now sophomores being difference makers every night.”
The one big hole in the Friars’ game last year was scoring. The Friars were fifth in the league in goals per game (2.76) last season, and had no players in the Top 20. This year, Mauermann’s prowess has led the Friar offense to a 3.56 goal-per-game clip, good for second in the conference behind only the juggernaut Boston College attack.
“Ross Mauermann’s our spark plug,” Gillies said. “He’s always out there after practice shooting pucks, he’s a model of the work ethic that this program preaches, and the championship mindset.”
That mindset – plus an all-world goaltender and some offensive firepower – has the Friars looking an awful lot like the team they almost were one year ago.
Player of the Week
Ray Pigozzi, fr. F, UMass
The rookie had a pair of assists in both of last weekend’s games, helping the Minutemen to a split with Notre Dame that included their first win on the road, and their first over a ranked team, in Saturday’s 3-2 victory in South Bend. Pigozzi’s 11 points are second on the Minuteman scoring chart this year.
Games of the Week
Northeastern at Vermont, Tuesday, Dec. 12
The last Hockey East game of 2013 might not have been one you circled on the calendar when the season began, but in a tight playoff race, the fifth-place Catamounts host the seventh-place Huskies, who are just one point back, in a midweek matchup that is all kinds of intriguing.
Hockey East power rankings