PROVIDENCE — One team clinched at least a share of the Hockey East regular season title on Friday night. The other is in a struggle just to make the playoffs.
So, of course, No. 3 New Hampshire completed its weekend sweep of Providence on Saturday night, right?
Wrong. Very, very wrong.
The Friars put together their best effort of the season when they needed it the most, and the result was a 7-1 thumping of the Wildcats at Schneider Arena.
Providence exploded for three power-play goals in the opening two periods and made it an easy night for sophomore goalie Chris Mannix, who made 21 saves in his first career start. Jon Rheault notched his third two-goal game of the season, the Deering, N.H. native tormenting his state university with a career-high four points, and Chase Watson added a goal and two assists to continue his sudden surge after a season-long slump.
The Friars’ offense, which came into the weekend having scored just 56 goals in 30 games, finished with 11 in two games against the Wildcats and looked every bit like the energetic, high-octane team that Providence head coach Tim Army promised when he took over on the bench at the start of last season.
The Friars’ effort also reflected the situation that they are in, battling to avoid missing out on the Hockey East postseason for the first time in program history.
“The stakes are pretty high and we’re running out of time in terms of sealing off a playoff spot,” Army said. “I don’t like to talk in terms of winning, because I think sometimes it takes your focus off playing the game right and, maybe, you get a little bit tight. I thought we needed to address it and we needed to come out and play as if we needed to win the game.”
“I just think Providence played a great game,” New Hampshire head coach Dick Umile said. “They did a great job but, absolutely, we stunk and played like jerks. The penalties just added to it and they put the puck in the net. That’s what we deserved. I have nothing else to say other than we were absolutely horrendous.”
Umile’s feelings aside, the out-of-town scoreboard brought good news for both teams and gave New Hampshire some solace. The Wildcats clinched the outright league title, its first since 2002, courtesy of No. 17 Vermont’s 3-2 win over second-place Boston University. Providence moved two points clear of Massachusetts-Lowell for the final playoff berth thanks to Boston College’s 4-3 win over the River Hawks.
“Our mentality is already in playoff mode right now,” Rheault said. “The next two games are Merrimack. We have seven games left until we’re at the (TD BankNorth Garden for the Hockey East tournament finals) and I think we can really do it.”
Mannix was the night’s first surprise. He got the call between the pipes just one minute before the opening face-off, appearing in net after Tyler Sims led Providence onto the ice for both pregame warm-ups and the brief period before the starting line-ups were introduced.
Mannix came on in favor of Sims one week ago before the start of the third period against Northeastern and Providence rallied from a 3-0 deficit to force a critical 3-3 tie.
The Friars allowed just three shots on Mannix in 25 minutes of action against the Huskies and defended his crease with the same discipline on Saturday.
“I had to get my helmet that was my first worry,” Mannix said. “I’ve been preparing all day, ever since last night, and as much as it was a surprise for me I was mentally ready.”
“He plays with some energy, and we need it to invigorate our line-up,” Army said. “I think our guys also responded and wanted to protect him a little bit because he hasn’t played a lot, but he’s improved a lot over the last two years as you can see.”
Mannix was solid and, if anything, New Hampshire goalie Kevin Regan was the one who looked out of place. Regan was shelled for three first-period goals and replaced by freshman Brian Foster at the start of the second period. Providence treated Foster with the same disdain that they showed Regan, piling in four more goals in the next 20:43.
“The puck went in for them tonight,” Umile said. “(Army) has had his team playing pretty well, so he deserves credit. The puck hasn’t gone in for them.”
The Friars were up to the challenge from the opening whistle, taking a 3-0 lead after one period and never looking back. Rheault scored two straight to spark the offense, the first coming on the power play just 6:05 in when he took a pass from John Cavanagh out of the right corner and bulled his way into the slot to stuff a shot past Regan.
Rheault struck again less than four minutes later by using his speed to finish off a 1-on-2 rush at the end of a shorthanded situation. Rheault used his speed to get free down the right wing and came all the way around Regan’s cage, banking a shot off the skate of New Hampshire defenseman Brad Flaishans from behind the goal line at the left post to make it 2-0.
Colin McDonald’s one-timer at the top of the slot off a perfect pass from Greg Collins made it a three-goal game at 16:53 and the rout was on.
“At this point in the season we have to put forth that type of effort,” Mannix said. “I was glad I got the start in that type of game. It’s a good first start to have the guys play that hard in front of you.”