December 14, 2012

Hockey East Journal: Friars deny York's bid to make history

By Andrew Merritt

Jerry York is going to make history soon, but the Providence Friars made sure he didn’t do it on their ice. 

Coach Nate Leaman and the Friars postponed Jerry York's record-breaking victory. (Dave Arnold Photography)

With Boston College’s estimable coach tied with Ron Mason for the all-time NCAA career coaching wins record at 924, the Eagles came to Providence Friday, Dec. 7, hoping to give York the record before the Christmas break.

Providence had other ideas. Handed their toughest challenge of the season, the Friars responded with one of their best efforts, coming back from a 2-0 deficit at the start of the third period to earn a tie with the Eagles, ensuring York’s history-making celebration wasn’t going to happen at Schneider Arena.

They did it with a gritty game that saw them throwing plenty of hits early on, and while they gave up a Johnny Gaudreau midway through the first, they outshot the Eagles 13-3 in the opening frame.

“If we let them skate, it’s an ugly game,” coach Nate Leaman said. “Last year, we played them four times, the aggregate score was 18-3. … It was obvious, you’ve got to slow them down, and finishing hits is one way to slow them down. I thought we did a good job of that tonight.”

PC dropped all three regular season games against BC last year, and the Eagles bounced the Friars from the playoffs with a 4-2 victory in the Hockey East semifinals. But that was a different Friar team, Leaman said.

“I think our team has the confidence,” said Leaman. “The one thing that I’ve been very encouraged about with our team this year is that when there’s a challenge, they want it. They like the big stage, they like the challenge. Last year, in all honesty, we weren’t real good in those situations. We kind of tightened up in a lot of those situations.

“To see a young team say ‘hey, I want this,’ you see their focus, you see, hey, they’re gonna go after this … we didn’t like the big moments [last year]. This team likes the big moments.”

Providence’s newfound penchant for big plays came in handy several times against BC. The obvious example came with 10.5 seconds left in regulation. The Eagles held a tenuous 3-2 lead thanks to a pair of goals by freshman Michael Matheson – the first multi-goal game of his college career. The Friars certainly had the odds stacked against them, playing a Boston College team that’s much better known for performing in big moments.

But the Friars are learning, and they found a way to get the puck on Nick Saracino’s stick with 10.5 seconds to go. The freshman from St. Louis picked the perfect time to score the first goal of his college career, in just his sixth appearance in a Providence sweater. It tied the game, and the Friars survived an overtime onslaught from the Eagles, who took six shots in five minutes. The overtime, like much of the game, contained some hair-raising moments for the Friars, such as the last 24 seconds being played with PC’s Shane Luke in the box for tripping.

Most of those moments came directly in front of Jon Gillies, the highly touted freshman goaltender from South Portland, Maine, who made 26 saves in the game. Through 15 games, Gillies has shined for the Friars, and owns the league’s second-best goals against average (1.95) and third-best save percentage (.928), stats made even more prominent in a year when all of the top 10 goaltenders are averaging fewer than three goals allowed and have above-.900 save percentages. And Gillies doesn’t just make a lot of easy saves, either. Against BC, he had several highlight stops – some of which Leaman said he didn’t even see, but which didn’t surprise the coach, based on Gillies’ performance in practice.

Ultimately, the Friars are still looking up at a big hill. They’re just two years removed from an 8-18-8 season and three straight years of missing the playoffs (after never missing them in the first 24 years of Hockey East play). So one game, even one as big as last Friday’s draw, is just a piece of the puzzle for Leaman’s crew.

“Our goal is to be playing our best hockey in February, and to keep learning and to keep improving,” Leaman said. “I saw improvement in our team in some key areas tonight, and I was going to be proud no matter what.”

Player of the Week

Connor Hellebuyck, fr., UMass-Lowell

The rookie from Commerce, Mich., picked up his first career shutout Saturday, Dec. 8, in a 25-save effort against Northeastern. Two nights later, the Winnipeg Jets prospect had shutout No. 2 with a 30-save game against Harvard, giving the River Hawks back-to-back victories for just the second time this year.

Game of the Week

Vermont at Providence, Thursday, 7 p.m.

It’s the last league clash of the year, and the only one on this week’s schedule. It also features a Vermont team looking to break a three-way tie for fifth place (with Merrimack and UMass), and a Providence team riding high off the draw with BC, and trying to make a dent in third-place BU’s five-point advantage in the standings.

Power Rankings

  1. Boston College (11-2-1, 9-2-1 HEA) – The Eagles’ tie with Providence may not have been what they were looking for as they hit the Christmas break, but they’re still in the Hockey East driver’s seat, and still own the No. 1 ranking in the nation.

  2. New Hampshire (11-2-2, 8-2-1 HEA) – UNH hits the Christmas break with the No. 2 spot in Hockey East and the national rankings. Last year at this time, the Wildcats were eighth in Hockey East and unranked nationally, but this seems to be a very different season for the red-hot Cats.

  3. Boston University (10-5-0, 8-4-0 HEA) – With their Dec. 8 shutout of Maine, the No. 6 Terriers hit the break with four wins in their last five games, and three in their last four against Hockey East teams.

  4. Providence (7-6-2, 5-4-1 HEA) – The Friars only picked up a point against BC, but after trailing for most of the game Friday, that tie certainly felt like a win for a team looking to gain a foothold in the top half of the Hockey East standings.

  5. Merrimack (7-7-3, 4-4-1 HEA) – The Warriors got a late power play goal from Vinny Scotti to beat Army on Dec. 11 in their last action until the Catamount Cup in Burlington, Vt., starting Dec. 29.  They’re 2-2-2 in their last six games.

  6. UMass-Lowell (4-7-1, 2-6-1 HEA) – It looks like the River Hawks may be getting their legs back after back-to-back shutouts of Northeastern and Harvard, both backstopped by Connor Hellebuyck, who made a combined 55 saves in the two games.

  7. Northeastern (5-9-1, 3-8-1 HEA) – The Huskies will be idle for three weeks before they hit the ice again Dec. 29 at Harvard, and hit the break on a 1-5-0 swoon.

  8. UMass (5-9-2, 4-6-1 HEA) – The good news for the Minutemen is that none of their last three games count in the Hockey East standings. The reason that’s good news is that they lost all three – two to Colgate, one to Yale – and enter the Christmas break on a 1-4 slide over their last five.

  9. Vermont (3-8-3, 3-5-3 HEA) – The Catamounts were idle last weekend, but they’ll sneak two more games in before Christmas, at St. Lawrence Dec. 15 and at Providence Dec. 20. That closes out a stretch of five straight games on the road, during which they’re 1-1-1 so far.

  10. Maine (2-11-2, 1-7-2 HEA) – The Black Bears can finally put the horrific first half of the year behind them. They’re back in action at the Florida College Classic in Estero, Fla., starting Dec. 28, at the end of a 20-day layoff.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @A_Merritt.