PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Costly Northeastern University penalties and priceless Providence College power play production have certainly added some spice to the Hockey East battle for home ice advantage.
The Friars pumped home two more goals with the man advantage on Saturday night, finishing off a home-and-home sweep of the No. 11 Huskies with a 5-2 victory at Schneider Arena.
Pierce Norton led the Providence attack with a pair of goals, one in each of the first two periods, as the Friars (11-9-2, 8-5-2 Hockey East) jumped into a third-place tie with Northeastern (11-8-3, 8-7-2 HE) in the league standings courtesy of their second four-point weekend of the season. Providence and the Huskies each have 18 points, but the Friars have two valuable games in hand in the fight to host an opening-round quarterfinal series and clinched the season series over Northeastern.
“I’m a junior now and we’ve never had home ice; that’s really killed us in the playoffs,” Norton said. “We knew that these games were huge. We just have to keep it up.”
The Huskies are stuck in a bit of a tailspin after their second straight frustrating weekend, earning just one point in a four-game span courtesy of a 2-2 tie at Vermont on Jan. 18. Northeastern has just one win in its last six games, going 1-4-1 in that stretch, and failed to finish off what was a promising start on Saturday. The Huskies played inspired hockey early in the opening period, building a 2-0 lead on goals just 48 seconds apart by Wade MacLeod and Jimmy Russo before struggling throughout the next 30 minutes.
“Everybody goes through slumps like this,” Northeastern coach Greg Cronin said. “We’re in a funk. We were the hottest team in the country for about eight weeks (during an 11-game unbeaten streak) and we’ve just got to turn it around and get back to where it was before.”
Providence chased Northeastern goaltender Mike Binnington midway through the second period, spoiling the freshman’s first career start by potting four unanswered goals in a 17-minute stretch that began late in the opening period and extended into the second.
Binnington got the call in place of sophomore Brad Thiessen, who had started each of Northeastern’s 21 previous games this season, and the switch in net was one of four changes in the Huskies’ line-up from the previous night. Thiessen was summoned from the bench soon after Friars’ freshman Ben Farrer ripped a booming slap shot from the left wing past Binnington for his first career goal 6:50 into the middle period.
“I just felt (Binnington) looked uncomfortable in there,” Cronin said. “You can always tell when a goalie is ready by his body language and his rebound control. He’s a young kid and it was his first game in a very difficult environment. He’ll learn from it.”
Farrer’s tally gave Providence a 3-2 lead and Norton added his second of the night from close range less than five minutes later, finishing off a beautiful tic-tac-toe passing combination by slotting home Cody Wild’s feed from the left wing corner.
Friars’ defenseman Matt Taormina earned an assist on the play for his fourth point of the weekend, emerging from a four-game drought with back-to-back strong efforts, and Providence finished the home-and-home series a strong 5-for-13 with the man advantage to reinforce its position as the league’s second-ranked power-play unit.
“We’ve been struggling since about Christmas on our power play,” Taormina said. “To get back on track really helped us. That’s been our dominant force.”
“Your power play is always going to springboard your offense,” Providence coach Tim Army said. “That’s going to always be the key. When that dries up. your offensive guys tend to dry up.”
Providence trailed by a 2-0 count in eight of its first 11 games last season, but a year’s worth of growing pains have certainly made a difference for the current group of Friars. Norton converted Nick Mazzolini’s beautiful pass across the crease at the 15-minute mark of the opening period, cutting the deficit in half, and Providence evened things up at 2-2 when John Cavanagh followed up on Norton’s shot from the left wing by burying a rebound on a power play 2:03 later.
“I think we just stayed with it,” Army said. “The Norton goal was big because it got us back in it and sort of settled us down.”
Norton lit the lamp soon after Army’s quick decision to reunite Norton with his regular linemates, Mazzolini and Kyle Laughlin. The trio played together for most of the season until Friday night, when Army decided to move sophomore winger Chris Eppich into Norton’s slot at right wing. Norton, Mazzolini and Laughlin combined for five points over the final 50 minutes on Saturday.
“You know everyone’s tendencies,” Norton said. “(Army) knew it was going to work. He tried something different during the week, but he put us back together and it worked pretty well.”
“We needed to get some familiarity, guys that read off of each other well,” Army said. “We had to send a message that we had to go at (Northeastern) hard.”