PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Seventy-eight days of pain and anguish finally came to an end for Providence.
A Tony Zancanaro third-period goal broke a 2-2 tie Saturday night as the Friars knocked off the Masschusetts-Lowell River Hawks, 3-2, to collect their first victory in Hockey East since Nov. 14 versus New Hampshire, a span of two and a half months.
The decision ended a nine-game winless skid in league for the Friars, and moved them from eighth place past idle Boston University into a three-way tie for fifth place with the River Hawks and Merrimack.
According to Providence head coach Paul Pooley, part of the team’s gain Saturday was proving to itself its ability to play with the lead.
“We have to learn to play with the league,” said Pooley. “We haven’t won in Hockey East in a while. So it was interesting going down the stretch. So I think that’s a good confidence builder for us.”
Providence played one of its most complete games of the season, putting solid pressure on Lowell’s defense with fast-paced, physical hockey, winning faceoffs and generating scoring chances.
“Our game plan tonight was to get it out, get it in and then we had to be good on faceoffs,” said Pooley. “I was watching [Lowell] on tape today and was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ because they have more faceoff plays than you’d imagine.”
Providence was also the beneficiary of solid goaltending from sophomore Bobby Goepfert (28 saves), who was benched a night earlier in a 4-0 loss to Boston College for a violation of team rules.
“I think [Goepfert] looked a little uncomfortable early and he was fighting the puck,” said Pooley of his goaltender.
Goepfert settled in as the game went on, eventually making top-notch saves in the middle period when Lowell had a chance to put the game away.
“He ended up making some really smart plays late to keep the puck moving. That’s just smart and being alert,” said Pooley.
The win marked the end of a difficult weekend for Lowell, having won Friday in an emotional game against Boston University before finding out that the club would have to forfeit five wins for using an ineligible player. Though head coach Blaise MacDonald said he didn’t think his club let the sour news bother it, he admitted that his team was worn down.
“I just thought we really ran out of physical and mental energy as the game progressed in the third period,” said MacDonald. “But our team was really excited to play the game. If anything, this is a reflection of a young team, where we’re fighting ourselves and not fighting our opponent.”
A high-intensity first period saw Lowell hold a lopsided shot advantage, 14-6, but grade ‘A’ chances were even at four. With that, it was the Friars that jumped on the board first.
On the power play, Chris Chaput picked up a loose puck in the slot to the left of Lowell’s netminder John Yaros (30 saves). Holding the puck, he eluded all Lowell defenders, waited for Yaros to commit to going down and slid the puck around the fallen tender into the open net, giving the Friars a 1-0 lead at 4:05.
It was the second straight night that Lowell fell behind, 1-0, and again the River Hawks responded on the power play.
This time, it was tic-tac-toe passing from Elias Godoy at the center of the blueline to Danny O’Brien at the left post across to Andrew Martin at the right pipe. Martin, who scored the game winner Friday, tapped the puck into the open net to knot the game at one.
After Providence’s Jeff Mason was assessed a minor for slashing as the first period expired, Lowell began the second on the power play and wasted little time capitalizing. A strange bounce behind the net gave Godoy the puck at the goalmouth with Goepfert out of position. Godoy bobbled the puck but had time to slide it home 20 seconds into the frame to give the River Hawks their first lead, 2-1.
And if Providence is to make a late run in Hockey East as the club has been known to do, it will be easy to look at what transpired next as a turning point.
After the River Hawks were assessed back-to-back penalties midway through the second, a 48 second Providence five-on-three resulted in a shorthanded Lowell getting two two-on-one odd man rushes that the ‘Hawks could not convert.
That ended up haunting the River Hawks as minutes later, with UML on the power play, Providence’s Bill McCreary scored shorthanded. After taking a headman pass from Mason, McCreary got a step on the Lowell defender and blasted a bullet over the glove of Yaros into the top left corner to knot the game at two.
“That’s a tough goal to give up to tie the game,” admitted MacDonald, “when we had two or three great chances to go up, 3-1, and we failed to do that. Then boom! We give up a shorty and it’s a whole new ballgame.”
With a 20-minute hockey game left to play, the Friars took advantage. Looking like they were fueled with high-octane gas between periods, the Friars came on with guns blasting, pinning Lowell into its zone before producing the game-winning goal at 4:01 left to play.
On a scramble in front of Yaros, Zancanaro was given the chance to be the hero as a loose puck skipped to his blade thanks to the pressure of Colin McDonald on the Lowell defense. Zancanaro took advantage, snapping off a quick shot through a screen that beat Yaros glove side, hit the crossbar and ended up in the net to send the 1,362 in attendance into a frenzy.
“The things we talked about between periods were what resulted in [the game-winning] goal,” said Pooley. “Tony [Zancanaro] was in the sweet spot and we found him for a great shot on goal.”
As the victory catapults Providence into the fifth-place tie, it also comes at a good time for the Friars’ momentum. Providence will play its next three games against opponents below .500 in the league (two against BU and one against Lowell).
Lowell is in a similar span, facing Northeastern and Providence in its next two contests in what now seems like a fight for fifth place instead of the home-ice battle the River Hawks were entrenched in two days ago.