While it has been easy to talk about Boston College, New Hampshire and Boston University this season, the fourth spot in Hockey East remains up in the air.
One team that put a stake in the ground last weekend in hopes of gaining the final home ice spot — if not more in the Hockey East standings — is Providence.
The Friars finished off a weekend sweep of Massachusetts last Saturday night and stand three points clear of fifth-place Merrimack and just two points behind third-place BU.
The sweep of the Minutemen came at a welcome time after the Friars went winless in five games dating to Nov. 30.
“I thought we were playing well enough to win,” coach Nate Leaman said about the stretch that saw his team go 0-3-2. “For whatever reason, we weren’t winning. I mean, I know the reason but we weren’t getting the result.”
Part of Providence’s struggles was the absence of goaltender Jon Gillies, who missed the previous three games for PC while backing up Jon Gibson for Team USA at the World Junior Championship. While Russ Stein did a nice job filling in for the absent Gillies, having the standout rookie back in net made a world of difference.
“Jon has been our most consistent player the first half of the season. It was good to have him back,” Leaman said. “He’s a good goaltender and it’s been a big difference in our team from last season to this season.”
One of the biggest benefits Gillies brings is his ability to stay focused throughout the game. That was apparent last Saturday night when he made a career-high 44 saves in a 2-0 shutout of UMass.
“He doesn’t get rattled very easily. But more importantly, he comes up with the big saves,” Leaman said. “He’s tough to beat and with a goaltender like that he gives you a chance to win every night.”
Also returning to the lineup was freshman forward Mark Jankowski. Last June, Jankowski was the second-highest player with college ties selected in the NHL Entry Draft. While it was a question whether Jankowski would return to juniors or come to Providence, it seems his decision to join the Friars has paid off as he’s been a big part of the PC offense.
“Mark’s a pretty skilled player with a good stick and good vision,” Leaman said. “I think he’s done an excellent job with [the transition from juniors].”
Leaman said the rookie’s ability can’t be questioned. If anything, he needs to work on adding some size and to get used to the college game.
“It was quite a transition from the level he was at last year,” Leaman said. “As far as his vision and his skills, they’re fine. It’s more getting up to the speed and the strength of the game.”
This Thursday, Providence will take on a difficult task of facing Massachusetts-Lowell. The River Hawks struggled in the first half but have played solid of late. And while Providence stifled Lowell a year ago in the playoffs, Leaman is concerned about Lowell’s talent heading into the important single game.
“I think they’re hot — extremely hot,” Leaman said. “If you win seven in a row, it doesn’t matter who you play — they’re going to have a lot of confidence.
“They have a lot of depth throughout the lineup. We have to do a good job with [clogging up] the lanes to the net and around the net.”
New Hampshire’s energy line making a difference
The New Hampshire Wildcats have had very few lowlights this season. But the club’s only back-to-back losses sparked a change for the better for coach Dick Umile’s squad.
A trio of players who had been in and out of the lineup were thrown together as a line for UNH’s consolation game matchup against Bemidji State at the Ledyard Classic at Dartmouth.
The night before, in a lethargic loss against host Dartmouth in the first game after the break, all members of the trio — Jay Camper, Dan Correale and Matt Willows — were healthy scratches.
But knowing the team needed a jump, Umile put the three together as his fourth line. Against Bemidji State, all the line mustered was two goals, including the overtime winner, to right the UNH ship.
Since that time, the three have provided what Umile terms as “energy” to the remainder of the forwards. Oh, and at the same time, they’ve also accounted for four more goals in three games.
The depth chart now shows the line as UNH’s third. Combined with the team’s top two scoring lines, UNH now has even more depth offensively, something that should be a major factor down the stretch and into the postseason.
“That line has been doing a lot for us,” Umile said. “They generated offense for us all night [last Saturday, a 2-1 win over Boston College].”
One of the most important factors for this new trio is knowing where one another will be on the ice. Particularly in the offensive zone, that, combined with the line’s desire to forecheck hard on the puck, makes them very dangerous.
“They’ve got great chemistry and it’s always about chemistry with a line,” Umile said. “They all play comparable to one another with great speed. They’re very tenacious with their forecheck. You get it down low and a lot of things can happen.”
Boston College learned that the hard way not once, but twice. On Friday night, Willows forced BC veteran Patrick Wey to turn over the puck. A quick centering pass later, Camper found the back of the net. Again on Saturday, the line cycled the puck well and scored an important goal to break a scoreless tie late in the second. UNH went on to win 2-1.
That success is a reason you can expect to see this line together for quite some time to come.
“They played terrific [in the Dartmouth tournament] and we’ve been going with them since,” Umile said.
• Don’t look now but the Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks are charging up the standings and putting themselves in position for another postseason run. A team that was one game away from the Frozen Four last season, Lowell started slow but has won seven straight games, the longest active winning streak in the nation. This weekend may be the best test for Lowell as it plays two teams ahead of the River Hawks in the standings: Providence and Boston University.
• Speaking of the Terriers, last week may be one of the strangest weeks a team has put together in terms of quality of play. BU, heavily favored against Harvard, turned off the switch when it got a 5-2 lead over the Crimson in the third period. Harvard came back with fury and scored four straight to win in overtime. The Terriers responded with a complete effort, dismantling Merrimack 4-1 on the road.
• I’d be remiss to not mention how important that Johnny Gaudreau’s return to the BC lineup was last weekend. After winning gold at the World Juniors, Gaudreau got right back into the swing of things Friday against UNH, scoring a goal and adding two assists. He was held off the scoreboard on Saturday but his line still generated quality scoring chances. A quick look at national statistics shows that Gaudreau isn’t near the lead in overall scoring but with 26 points in just 16 games, he leads the country in points per game. Ryan Walters of Nebraska-Omaha, the nation’s scoring leader, may have 36 points but has had 24 games to put up those numbers.
• Things may have been a little difficult for Northeastern thus far, but the highlight of the season has been rookie Kevin Roy. Highly touted coming into Northeastern, the forward ranks third in rookie scoring with nine goals and 20 points in 18 games. Nine of those points have come in the last five games (4-5–9). Roy leads the Huskies in scoring.
• Finally, here’s sending well-wishes to BC coach Jerry York as he continues to recover from surgery to repair a detached retina. The team announced earlier this week that York, who missed last week’s games, is resting comfortably. It’s still unclear when he’ll be back behind the BC bench.
USCHO covers Hockey East all week long on the Hockey East Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.