BOSTON — In a tightly-played defensive battle, top seed Providence took a 1-0 victory over second seed New Hampshire to win the inaugural Hockey East championship. The game featured terrific scoring opportunities for both squads, but also stifling defense and great goaltending that kept the score low.
“That’s [New Hampshire] a tremendous team we played,” Providence head coach Bob Deraney said. “To beat them three times in one year is quite an accomplishment.”
This was the fourth meeting between these two teams; the home team won the three previous games, two for Providence and one for New Hampshire. The teams finished a single point apart in the conference standings, so it seemed only fitting that the game should be as close as this one turned out to be.
It was a complete turnaround from the last game these two teams played, a 7-4 Providence win that was all run-and-gun offense. “We talked about what we wanted to do, and that was work on our defense,” Deraney said.
Part of the reason for the change was the play of both goaltenders. Both UNH’s Jen Huggon and PC’s Jana Bugden finished with shutouts Saturday in the semifinals, and both were sharp Sunday as well. Huggon made 31 stops, allowing just one goal despite sometimes heavy Providence pressure, and was named to the All-Tournament Team for her efforts. Bugden got the shutout, making a total of 13 saves for the game and 39 for the tournament without allowing a single goal.
Another reason would be the defensive system used by Providence, which employs three defensemen and two forwards, and allows defensive-minded forwards to jump into the play.
“We’ve got tremendously skilled forwards, eight of them,” said Deraney. “At defense, we’ve got kids jumping up in the play. Our kids are hockey players, they’re not kids who like to play hockey. They understand the way the game is meant to be played.”
The best example of that was Kelli Halcisak, who assisted on the game’s only goal, on top of five assists yesterday. She was awarded the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
The game’s only goal came early in the second period, off the stick of sophomore Hilary Greaves, who completed the tournament with three goals and was named to the All-Tournament Team. She completed a rush with defenseman Halcisak, who dished off at the last minute to Greaves.
“I was coming out and I saw Hilary cutting in front of me,” said Halcisak. “I gave her the pass, and I saw they weren’t covering me, so I jumped up to be an option for her.”
Greaves added, “I knew when she gave it to me, she was going to be in front of me, because she’s faster. The goalie dove out, and I knew Kelli would be there as well, so I just threw at the open net.”
“They made a nice little dish and put it in net,” said UNH coach Brian McCloskey. “Once they got that, we felt we had to take a few more chances.”
It looked like those chances had paid off at the 15-minute mark of the frame, when a Providence defensive lapse left the Wildcats’ leading scorer, Stephanie Jones, alone in front of the PC net. She skated to the far side — perhaps a little too far — and Friar goaltender Jana Bugden kicked the shot off harmlessly to the corner.
“On the breakaway, she read me and played it well,” Jones said.
“Personally, I thought the turning point of the game was when they had a 2-on-0 in the second period,” said Deraney. “That was our biggest breakdown. That could have put us in the hole, but that save turned the game around.
McCloskey hoped to take advantage of the Providence offense with a quick transition game, and a key part of that strategy was the play of Huggon.
“Providence was most vulnerable when they were getting their best chances,” he said. “But you can’t be doing that unless you have an elite goalie. She did some wild stuff today coming out of the net, and in between periods, I said, ‘Keep doing your thing.’ It seemed to work.”
With the win, Providence (24-6-6) secures the championship, but almost certainly ends its season. With Dartmouth winning a 7-2 decision over Harvard in the ECAC championship game, it seemed unlikely either Hockey East team would be playing in the NCAA tournament.
Selections will be announced Sunday night.
New Hampshire (27-7-2) takes the loss.
The Hockey East All-Tournament Team was as follows:
Jen Huggon, New Hampshire, G
Kelli Halcisak, Providence, D
Allison Edgar, New Hampshire, D
Stephanie Jones, New Hampshire, F
Hilary Greaves, Providence, F
Rush Zimmerman, Providence, F
Most Valuable Player: Halcisak