BOSTON — Heroes in the rich tradition of Providence hockey have come from the hotbeds of Massachusetts, Minnesota and Ontario.
Now you can add Albuquerque, New Mexico, to that list.
Hockey East Rookie of the Year Sonny Watrous, an Albuquerque native, scored with 9:06 remaining in the third period to break a 2-2 tie as the second-seeded Friars went on to a 4-2 win over third seed Maine in the opening semifinal of the second annual Women’s Hockey East championship.
“There are four rinks in the entire state [of New Mexico] but luckily I live five minutes from one,” said Watrous.
Lucky, indeed, are her Friars, who will meet the winner of Saturday’s second semifinal between host Northeastern and top-seeded New Hampshire in Sunday’s championship game.
Watrous’ goal came on a two-on-one play after the Black Bears defense turned the puck over at the defensive blueline. Rush Zimmerman carried the puck in on the left wing side then slid a perfect pass to Watrous that beat Maine goaltender Lara Smart (40 saves) five-hole.
“At first I thought [Smart] had it,” said Watrous, who appeared not to see the puck go in, raising her head in surprise. “I think I saw the red light go on or it trickle in, I can’t even remember. All I knew was that Rush [Zimmerman] was coming over to me to celebrate.”
Providence iced the game at 17:11 of the third when Karen Thatcher scored shorthanded, stealing the puck on the forecheck and walking to the net herself, burying her ninth goal of the year.
The two story lines in the game were the goaltending of Smart, which nearly allowed the Black Bears to steal a game in which they were outshot, 44-17, and the strong penalty kill of the Friars.
“Since I’ve been a coach I’ve believed that penalty killing wins games,” said Providence coach Bob Deraney, who will attempt to lead his team to back-to-back Hockey East titles on Sunday. “When we go a man down I think that we feel pretty confident as a unit and as a team that we can do a good job.”
Maine coach Rick Filighera admitted that his club simply “didn’t execute” on the power play. The Black Bears were 0-for-6 in the game.
“We wanted to get the puck to the goal line and move it to the net [on the power play],” said Filighera. “It wasn’t because of a lack of effort, but I felt that part of our execution just didn’t work.”
The opening saw some good opportunities early, but goaltending, particularly by Maine’s Smart, who finished the period with 16 saves, kept the game scoreless through most of the first.
“[Smart] is fantastic. She’s a great goaltender and she gave us a chance to win,” said Filighera of Smart’s performance.
Providence finally broke through on Smart at 14:52, when second-team all-Hockey East defenseman Kelli Halcisak skated in front of Smart, making a quick move to tuck the puck under for the 1-0 lead.
That lead didn’t last long, as before you blinked, Providence not only surrendered the lead, but actually trailed. At 15:50, rookie Brigitte Laflamme tucked a loose puck under Providence netminder Jana Bugden (15 saves) to even the game at one. Then 51 seconds later, Smart was beaten by a quick shot off the stick of Kate Sunstrum inside the right post to give Maine a 2-1 lead through one.
Early in the second, the Friars drew even. Katelynn Laffin fired a low wrister that may have surprised Smart, beating her five-hole at 6:08 to knot the game at two.
Later in the frame, each team had chances to retake the lead. That, though, was when goaltending took over. No save was better than one by Smart in the closing seconds. With Providence on the power play, Hilary Greaves fired a quick shot that Smart kicked aside. The rebound, though, went right onto Emily Gryp’s stick with an empty net.
Somehow, Smart flashed her right skate and caught Gryp’s shot with her toe to send the game to the locker rooms even through two.
That set the stage for Watrous and the Friars to put New Mexico on the hockey map.
The victory gives the Friars 20 wins for the third straight season. In fact, PC has posted 20-win seasons four times in five seasons since Deraney has taken over the program.
Maine finishes the season at 12-16-4, but more importantly graduates a class that has transformed Maine hockey to a competitive Division I program.
“This class came in here when we were a lousy team,” said Filighera. “They made us into a team that can compete with the top teams in the country. A lot of that has to do with those [seniors].”