PROVIDENCE, R.I. — This was the Tyler Sims that Providence expected entering the season — calm, composed and, when at the top of his game, one of the best goaltenders that Hockey East has to offer.
Sims made 34 saves and made a rare Friars’ lead stand up, as Providence outlasted Massachusetts-Lowell, 4-2, while playing its final home game until early 2007.
The Friars took a two-goal lead after two periods, just the second time this season in which they had scored the opening two goals in a game, and rode a strong performance by Sims the rest of the way. Jon Rheault’s shorthanded goal 4:05 into the third period proved to be the game-winner, restoring Providence’s two-goal cushion after Lowell’s Kory Falite beat Sims just 52 seconds in.
Sims made 28 saves over the course of the final two periods, looking very much like the goaltender he was last season when he started all but one of Providence’s conference games and was voted the Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week twice and the league’s Player of the Month in December. The junior looked much more confident than he had at any point previously this season, as he stumbled to a 2-5-1 record out of the gate.
“It was big for me individually, because I’ve been struggling at the beginning of the year,” Sims said. “We’ve obviously been struggling as a team as a result of that. It was good for me to get a good win under my belt and good for the guys to have confidence in me.”
Rheault’s shorthanded tally, his second with the Friars a man down this year and his fourth overall, killed any momentum that Lowell generated early in the third. Rheault raced ahead of three River Hawks to chase down Tony Zancanaro’s long chip into the offensive zone and came out from behind the net to flip a quick backhander between the legs of Lowell goalie Carter Hutton.
It was Rheault’s first goal since he scored in Providence’s first meeting with the River Hawks on Oct. 28, a 2-2 tie, and might serve to spark Rheault, the team’s leading scorer as a sophomore last year with 16 goals, out of his early-season drought.
“A shorthanded goal at that time in the game to reestablish the lead and give us the momentum back — it was a very big goal for us,” Rheault said. “You could feel it on the bench right away.”
“It’s always a momentum swing when you can score shorthanded, especially in a key point in the game,” Providence head coach Tim Army said. “I think the other thing for us is that maybe it gets Jon Rheault going a little bit. He hasn’t scored in a while and he’s had some chances. We obviously need Jon to score.”
Sims was under siege for the final 11 minutes of the second period, as Lowell enjoyed a pair of power play opportunities and controlled the play. The River Hawks were able to put constant traffic in the slot and generated six shots with the man advantage, all of which were turned aside by Sims. Providence’s defense added five blocks to keep the River Hawks off the board.
“We had a ton of Grade-A chances right in the crease,” UMass-Lowell head coach Blaise MacDonald said. “We tipped three pucks that he made exceptional saves on. He clearly was the difference.”
Army said that he was having flashbacks to a game against Merrimack earlier in the season, a game the Friars dominated during the opening 30 minutes but lost, 3-2, after blowing a 2-0 lead.
“In the Merrimack game they were able to get a couple of goals, but tonight Simsy bailed us out in the last 10 minutes of the second,” Army said. “We got a little bit sloppy and Simsy made some big stops and kept us at 2-0 as we headed into the third period. I think that was a clear indication of what his impact was on the game.”
Pierce Norton’s opening goal on the power play in the first and Mark Fayne’s rebound score off a shot from the left wing by Greg Collins forced the River Hawks to play catch-up for the rest of the night. Providence was in front by two for the first time since its second game of the season, a 4-2 win over St. Lawrence on Oct. 14, and on the other side of a vicious cycle that has seen the Friars trail 2-0 in eight of their first 13 games.
“It’s a different mindset because I think it allows the team that gets the lead to settle in a little bit,” Army said. “In order to get back from a 2-0 lead you have to expose yourself.”
“It’s different than fighting that two-goal deficit,” Rheault said. “We came out a lot faster than we normally do, a lot stronger. It’s important to get that first goal. It is much easier to play with the lead, and I think we played well with it.”
ICE CHIPS: Providence defenseman Cody Wild returned to the lineup Friday after missing the club’s previous four games. Wild, a sophomore from North Providence, had played in 44 consecutive games to start his career before a lingering hip injury kept him out of the lineup for the first time on Nov. 4 against Massachusetts. Wild, who was selected to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team in 2005-06, got the call in place of Trevor Ludwig, who had played in Wild’s absence in each of the last four games. …
Chris Mannix dressed as the back-up goaltender for the third straight game for the Friars, but freshman Ryan Simpson may be close to returning to the bench. Simpson left his first conference start against Vermont on Nov. 10 in the second period due to injury. He had an MRI on his stomach last week and Providence head coach Tim Army said that Simpson was “progressing.” Army speculated that Simpson could practice as early as Saturday. Tyler Sims has started three straight games for Providence. …
The Friars won’t play at Schneider again until their Jan. 5 match-up with Boston University, the penalty for a heavily-slanted home schedule during the season’s early stages. Providence played 10 of its first 13 at home, posting a 4-6-0 record. … Rene Rancourt sang the National Anthem on Friday. Rancourt, who has been singing the Anthem at Boston Bruins home games for more than 30 years, was on hand to entertain the crowd with some Christmas carols between the first and second periods.