PROVIDENCE — Judging by its last two performances, Providence College wanted to be in the Hockey East playoffs pretty badly.
The Friars followed up their destruction of New Hampshire last Saturday with a 7-2 pounding of Merrimack on Senior Night Friday at Schneider Arena, clinching the eighth and final league postseason berth.
Greg Collins and Pierce Norton netted two goals apiece and reigning Hockey East Player of the Week Jon Rheault continued his recent tear, racking up a goal and two assists to run his total to 10 points in the last three games, as the Friars extended the Warriors’ winless streak to 15 games.
Providence scored three goals in each of the opening two periods and goalie Chris Mannix earned his second win in as many starts as the Friars avoided missing the Hockey East playoffs for the first time in program history.
“I think they’re getting rewarded for the way they’ve played all year long,” Providence head coach Tim Army said. “I think there were games that we could have won like this. We just couldn’t seem to find the big goal or really get the big stop defensively.”
“To clinch a spot and to get ourselves a victory is a great feeling,” Collins said. “I hope it carries into the playoffs.”
Providence entered the weekend with a two-point lead over Massachusetts-Lowell, but the Friars had no intention of backing into their quarterfinal series against the top-seeded Wildcats next weekend by depending on the River Hawks to lose one of their two remaining games at Vermont.
Rheault, Collins and McDonald struck for three goals in a 2:35 span midway through the opening period to give Providence a comfortable 3-0 lead and the Friars eventually chased Merrimack starting goalie Jim Healey 13:34 into the second after Chase Watson set up Norton in the slot to make it 6-1.
Healey’s replacement, Andrew Braithwaite, had troubles of his own in the third period when his clearing pass was knocked down and put into an empty net by Norton for his second two-goal game of the season.
“(The puck) has gone in, and whenever it goes in I think guys loosen up,” Army said. “They handle their opportunities with a bit more poise rather than trying grip the stick so tightly and pressing to score.”
Rheault, Collins and center Nick Mazzolini certainly fit what Army is describing, leading a Providence offense that has scored 18 goals in its last three games. The Friars’ top line combined for eight points on Friday, with Mazzolini adding three assists to big nights from Rheault and Collins.
“I think we’re all three different types of players,” Collins said. “Nick’s obviously a little bit bigger (at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and Jon and I are smaller (5-11, 200 and 5-11, 185, respectively) and a little quicker. I think it’s that difference between us that makes us work so well. We’ve all been feeding off each other.”
Providence has Saturday’s rematch at Merrimack remaining on its regular season schedule, and the Friars will be trying to win three straight for the first time all year to build continue their momentum into the postseason.
One of the few questions that Providence has to answer at this point concerns its goaltending situation. Mannix has now won two straight in favor of two-year starter Tyler Sims and freshman Ryan Simpson dressed for his first game since November on Friday night. Army didn’t tip his hand as to who would be between the pipes on Saturday, but he did say that the job as his postseason goalie is still very much open.
“By Monday we’ve got to make a decision on who is going to go into New Hampshire and play,” Army said. “It’s a nice situation to have where you’ve got three guys who are capable of playing. The competition is good.”
Bad blood could be simmering when Providence rolls into Durham to face the Wildcats for the opener of their best-of-three series, which is tentatively scheduled from Thursday at 7 p.m. New Hampshire swept the Friars last season in the quarterfinals, including a pulsating, 2-1 win in double overtime in the second game.
The Wildcats won two of three meetings against Providence this year, but the Friars handed New Hampshire its worst loss of the season in a 7-1 shellacking at Schneider last Saturday.
“After all we’ve been through in two years we’re in the exact same spot we were a year ago,” Army said. “We’re going to New Hampshire. We were the fifth seed last year we’re the eighth seed this year, but right now we’re playing our best hockey of the year and we’re playing better at this time than we were playing last year.”