PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Friday night, the level of hockey that the No. 14 Massachusetts Minutemen played in the 6-2 home loss against No. 15 Providence was as close to uninspired as head coach Don Cahoon can stomach.
So it was no surprise that Cahoon wanted his team to play with — as he called it — “a purpose” in Saturday’s road rematch.
“I’m really happy the way that our guys responded to the way that things took shape last night,” said Cahoon, whose club improved to 5-1-0 on the young season (2-1-0 Hockey East), the best start since joining Hockey East in 1994. “You never know after you put out a poor performance how the kids are going to respond to what you have to say. These kids really worked hard for each other [tonight] which made me happy with the performance.”
The hero of the night was standout defenseman Thomas Pck. The senior defenseman-converted-from-forward scored two goals for the Minutemen while logging monster minutes of ice time. Adding in his assist in Friday’s game, Pck has an impressive six goals and nine points in 10 career games against the Friars.
“We don’t play him like we should,” said Providence head coach Paul Pooley about how his club handles the 6-foot-1 Austrian. “I think we need to pressure him a little more and body him more.”
Pooley himself sat in the position Cahoon held a night earlier, frustrated with his club’s ability to come out of the gate, particularly after a league road win.
“We didn’t establish out forecheck in the first two periods,” said Pooley. “By the third period we were in survival mode trying to do everything we had to do to tie the game and in this league you’re not always going to do it.”
The reason the tying goal never came was not for lack of effort. Providence peppered UMass with 10 shots in the third, most of them coming in crunch time over the game’s closing minutes. But UMass goalie Gabe Winer (22 saves), not tested much early, was the difference in the game, making three point-blank saves late.
“I’m sure [Winer] wasn’t pleased [with Friday's performance],” said Cahoon, who said he left the conversation about Friday’s game to his goaltending coach Jim Stewart. “He knows when he doesn’t play well, so I was tickled to death for him tonight.”
For the Friars, junior David Cacciola (32 saves) received only his second start in net of the year, one that Pooley said he earned.
“He’s waited for the chance to play for two years,” said Pooley. “Tonight gave him a lot of confidence which is good for us.
“Last night we didn’t need goaltending and tonight we did. He gave us a chance to win tonight.”
The Minutemen looked like a team possessed in the early going of the game, controlling the play in the first period outshooting the Friars, 16-8.
While dominating the play, UMass got the first quality scoring chance when defenseman Marvin Degon found Mike Warner in stride. Warner one-timed a perfect pass but Cacciola made a highlight-reel save stopping the puck while moving right to left to keep the game scoreless.
The Minutemen, though, would finally break through, when Pck scored his first of two power play goals, wristing a shot through heavy traffic at 15:35. The shot went clean through the five hole of Cacciola for the 1-0 lead.
The Friars, though, wasted no time evening the game, scoring off an in-zone draw 1:18 later. Chase Watson won the faceoff back to Jason Platt who blasted a high shot through a massive screen that beat Winer over the blocker to even the game at one.
Pck put the Minutemen back on top in the second again scoring on the power play. This time he used his wicked slap shot from the blue line that gave Cacciola no chance beating him glove side at 3:37 for the 2-1 lead.
“Over the last two games [versus Providence] they gave me about seven or eight shots,” said Pck, whose five goals and ten points both lead the Minutemen. “I was confident that if they gave me more than a couple, I could pop one in.”
UMass extended the lead at 12:54 of the second when Greg Mauldin stickhandled all the way from his zone through traffic and on the doorstep dropped a pass for Tim Vitek. The junior fired a wrist shot glove side on Cacciola for the 3-1 lead.
Seemingly controlling the play, it appeared UMass would take a two-goal lead into intermission, particularly after killing Sean Regan’s charging penalty in the closing minute. But with just 19.1 seconds remaining Luke Irwin pinched from the right point during a delayed penalty call and fired a shot over the shoulder of Winer to pull the Friars within a goal heading into the third.
Third final period saw the Providence offense come alive late, only to have Winer spoiled the attack. Saves on David Carpentier at 16:30 and a point-blank attempt by Peter Zingoni 70 seconds later preserved the UMass lead.
An empty-netter by Warner with 21.5 seconds remaining put the game away for the Minutemen and sent the large travel-crowd from Amherst into a frenzy.
The loss drops Providence to 5-2-1 (1-2-1 Hockey East). They will face a struggling Northeastern club next, traveling to Boston for a single game next Friday.
Massachusetts will play a home-and-home series against Merrimack next weekend, traveling to North Andover on Friday night.