March 22, 2012

Hockey East Journal: Providence has plenty to be proud of

By Andrew Merritt

When Providence started the season 8-6-1, briefly owning first place in Hockey East and some big-time victories over the likes of Boston University and Merrimack, there was a buzz surrounding a program that had been sorely lacking in it over the last decade. 

Barrett Kaib celebrates his goal for Providence in the Friars' semifinal game against BC. (Dave Arnold Photography)

And when that 8-6-1 start gave way to a 6-12-3 finish, planting them in a scramble to make the playoffs for the first time in four years, you almost had to give a resigned shake of the head, because it felt inevitable. In their first year under new head coach Nate Leaman, even with his serious bona fides, it simply made sense that the Friars wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace they had set early on.

But then they made it to the playoffs. In the final weekend of the year, they had lost twice to UMass-Lowell, which itself was creating some surprises under first-year head coach Norm Bazin. Yet a week later, when two more losses to the River Hawks would spell the end of Providence’s season and mark the 11th straight year in which the Friars missed out on a trip to the TD Garden for the league semifinals, a funny thing happened. The Friars won. They took Game 1, and then bounced back from an overtime loss in Game 2 to beat the River Hawks, 1-0, in Game 3, punching their ticket to the Garden ice.

In the semifinals, there was even the brief hope that Providence, the lowest remaining seed (7) in the tournament, might have another surprise up its sleeve for the No. 1 Eagles. After Paul Carey put BC ahead early, Barrett Kaib and Derek Army scored 2:05 apart, and suddenly the once-cellar-dwelling Friars were in position to play for a league title, having become just the second team to take a lead against BC in the Eagles’ last 13 games.

It didn’t last, of course. The Eagles found their stride midway through the first period, with freshman Destry Straight tying the game at the 8:35 mark. Johnny Gaudreau scored the first of his three Hockey East playoff goals on the power play nearly four minutes into the second period, and the Eagles never looked back. Providence’s topsy-turvy season ended with a 4-2 loss to BC on Friday night, 24 hours before the Eagles hoisted the Lamoriello Trophy as league champions for the third straight year.

When you ask a player who’s just seen his season end about moral victories, you usually get a reaction somewhere between ambivalence and outright contempt. Yet senior Danny New, whose college career came to a close with the defeat, recognized that 2011-12 was a banner year for the Friars, even if no banner was actually raised.

“It is a proud moment for the program, we are the class that got it back on track with a good team of younger guys,” New said. “Obviously our goal was to go further than tonight, but we have made a lot of people proud.”

Games of the Week

Friday

East Regional: UMass-Lowell vs. Miami (at Bridgeport, Conn.), 6:30 p.m., ESPNU/ESPN3.com

Saturday

Northeast Regional: Boston College vs. Air Force (at Worcester, Mass.), 4 p.m., ESPNU/ESPN3.com

West Regional: Boston University vs. Minnesota (at St. Paul, Minn.), 5 p.m., ESPN3.com

East Regional: regional final, 6:30 p.m., ESPNU/ESPN3.com

Northeast Regional: Maine vs. Minnesota-Duluth (at Worcester, Mass.), 7:30 p.m., ESPN3.com

Sunday

West: regional final, 5:30 p.m., ESPNU/ESPN3.com

Northeast: regional final, 8 p.m., ESPNU-ESPN3.com

Hockey East power rankings

1. Boston College (29-10-1, 19-7-1 HEA) – The Eagles haven’t lost a game in two months, and they’ve only trailed twice during that 15-game span.

2. Maine (23-13-3, 15-10-2 HEA) – The Black Bears would have liked the big prize last weekend at the Garden – and would have become the first team whose name doesn’t start with “Boston” to win the Hockey East title since they beat UMass in triple overtime in 2004. At least they get to stay in New England for the NCAA regional at Worcester. Also, senior Spencer Abbott was named the Hockey East Player of the Year, having won the league scoring race.

3. UMass-Lowell (23-12-1, 17-9-1 HEA) – The River Hawks are coming off a 12-day layoff between losing in the Hockey East quarterfinals and Friday’s regional semifinal against Miami (Ohio). They did get some good news last weekend, as freshman Scott Wilson was named the Hockey East Rookie of the Year, and Norm Bazin was named the league’s coach of the year in his first season behind the bench. The River Hawks are in the NCAA Tournament this weekend for the first time since 1996.

4. Boston University (23-14-1, 17-9-1 HEA) – Alex Chiasson (three goals, three assists) had a terrific Hockey East playoffs, but not many other Terriers could say that, and BU gets flung halfway across the country to the NCAA’s West Regional in Minnesota.

5. Merrimack (18-12-7, 13-9-5 HEA) – Goaltender Joe Cannata (Wakefield, Mass.), who posted a 2.18 goals against average and .925 save percentage in his senior year, signed with the Vancouver Canucks shortly after Merrimack’s ouster from the Hockey East playoffs.

6. New Hampshire (15-19-3, 11-14-2 HEA) – The Wildcats put two freshmen – goaltender Casey DeSmith (Rochester, N.H.) and forward Trevor van Riemsdyk – on the Hockey East All-Rookie team, and also won the Charlie Holt Team Sportsmanship Award.

7. Providence (14-20-4, 10-14-3 HEA) – Providence’s 14 wins are the most the program has racked up since the 2007-08 season.

8. UMass (13-18-5, 9-14-4 HEA) – Springfield, Mass., native T.J. Syner, who captained the Minutemen in his senior season, signed an amateur tryout agreement with the AHL’s Hershey Bears last week, and also signed a contract to play with Hershey in 2012-13.

9. Northeastern (13-16-5, 9-14-4 HEA) – It’s probably not the kind of history he was hoping to make in his first year behind the bench, but Jim Madigan (Milton, Mass.) became the first Northeastern coach to ever pick up a tie in his first game when the Huskies drew with UMass on Oct. 7, 2011.

10. Vermont (6-27-1, 3-23-1 HEA) – Sebastian Stalberg, who signed with the San Jose Sharks organization rather than coming back for his senior season, didn’t wait long to score his first professional goal. He found the net with 2:04 to go in the second period of his first game as a Worcester Shark, a 5-2 win over Bridgeport on March 18.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com.