December 13, 2013

Hockey East Journal: Friars are a year older, wiser, and better

By Andrew Merritt

Jon Gillies is among the best goaltenders in the country, and his Providence team is catching up to him in a year that's showing a lot of promise for the Friars. (Photo: Dave Arnold/Hockey Journal)

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

  1. Providence (11-2-3, 6-2-1 HEA) – The No. 5 Friars dug themselves one heck of a hole in Friday’s game against Northeastern, but three goals – all assisted on by Ross Mauermann  – helped them salvage a 3-3 tie and stay unbeaten in their last four games.
  2. Boston College (10-4-2, 6-1-1 HEA) – Well that happened fast. After we wondered if the No. 6 Eagles were showing some weakness in two straight losses, they went out and slapped around UNH to the tune of an 8-3 combined margin over two wins last weekend. The 6-2 win Friday night was mostly about the Eagle offense, but goaltender Brian Billett (Brunswick, Maine) made 39 saves to stifle the Wildcats as well.
  3. UMass-Lowell (11-5-0, 4-2-0 HEA) – Although the No. 10 River Hawks’ loss to Maine was their first in almost a month, snapping a six-game win streak, senior Derek Arnold (Foxborough, Mass.) had a goal and an assist, and now has 7-4—11 totals in his last nine games.
  4. Northeastern (9-5-2, 3-4-1 HEA) – The red-hot Huskies are 3-0-2 over their last five, with the sixth-longest unbeaten streak in the nation. They got a big help from goaltender Clay Witt, who made 52 saves in Friday’s tie with Providence – a career high for him, and the third most in Northeastern history.
  5. New Hampshire (9-9-1, 5-5-0 HEA) – Although the Wildcats seem to be in a two-steps-forward, two-steps-back pattern of late, senior Nick Sorkin has been plenty consistent, with three goals and four assists in the last four games. 
  6. Vermont (7-5-1, 4-4-0 HEA) – The Catamounts’ four-game winning streak is their first since 2009-10. That’s a pretty good sign, since that was UVM’s last winning season, and the last one in which the Cats made the NCAA Tournament. The penalty kill, which is fifth in the nation and second in Hockey East with an 89.1 percent success rate, has been a big key.
  7. Notre Dame (10-7-1, 3-4-1 HEA) – It might be early to say they’re in trouble, but the No. 13 Irish have won just two of their last seven games, and only taking seven points from their first eight Hockey East contests doesn’t augur well for a strong finish to their first season in the conference.
  8. Maine (7-6-1, 4-2-1 HEA) – The magic of Alfond Arena has been undeniable this season, and it came in quite handy as the Black Bears upset UMass-Lowell on Sunday for their seventh home win in eight games this year. 
  9. Boston University (7-7-2, 2-4-1 HEA) – BU has gotten increasingly tough to figure out. The Terriers have wins over two ranked teams (Providence, Wisconsin) this year, but they also have losses to two teams in the bottom half of the conference (Merrimack, UMass), and haven’t had a win streak of more than two games all season.
  10. UMass (4-11-2, 2-7-2 HEA) – Saturday’s surprise 3-2 win over Notre Dame was the first road win in 10 tries this year, and also the first win over a ranked team since February.  
  11. Merrimack (4-9-2, 1-5-2 HEA) – The Warriors seem to have played like an entirely different team in Friday’s 3-2 win over BU, coming from behind on the strength of a 39-24 shot advantage – their widest shooting edge of the year – to earn their first league win of the season in their last game of the calendar year. Their next official contest, after an exhibition against the Russian Red Stars on Jan. 2, is the Jan. 4 game against Providence at Fenway Park.

Twitter: @A_Merritt