PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The disappointment radiating from No. 14 Providence College’s bench could be felt throughout Schneider Arena on Saturday night.
The Friars continued their stumble out of the home-ice equation for the upcoming Hockey East playoffs, courtesy of a bitter 3-2 home defeat against Merrimack College.
Matt Jones canceled out Providence’s desperate comeback attempt by potting the winning goal with 3:41 to play, finishing off a home-and-home sweep of the Friars and keeping the Warriors’ own playoff hopes alive for one more weekend. Merrimack (12-15-3, 6-15-2 Hockey East) held out hope of claiming the eighth and final bid into the postseason thanks to Andrew Braithwaite’s 47 saves and Maine’s 3-2 victory over Massachusetts, closing the gap between the ninth-place Warriors and the eight-place Minutemen to three points with two weeks left in the regular season.
“We need all the points we can get,” Braithwaite said. “We can’t afford to get rid of any of them. We need them and we have to hope for the best along the way.”
Braithwaite’s sensational weekend included 89 saves and he lifted his total in three games against Providence this season to 139 on 142 shots faced. The Friars simply couldn’t penetrate Merrimack’s defensive structure, as the Warriors kept Providence’s shooters outside the slot and limited the Friars’ chances in front.
“They pack it in,” Providence coach Tim Army said. “They’ve got five guys below the top of the circles. It’s like trying to get through a gauntlet. It’s like a zone defense in basketball.”
“They didn’t have a lot of Grade-A scoring chances, which always makes my life a lot easier,” Braithwaite said. “The guys came to play tonight.”
Providence’s short run among the league’s upper echelon appears to be all but over. The Friars (13-13-4, 10-9-4 HE) are now mired in a tailspin that includes a 1-4-2 record in their last seven games and have tumbled from second place all the way down to a tie for fifth with Northeastern in the league standings.
Third-period goals by Pierce Norton and Greg Collins weren’t enough for Providence to rebound from its disappointing 2-0 loss on Friday night and the Friars were unable to salvage a single point from what could turn out to be their most frustrating weekend of the regular season.
“I thought we played extremely well tonight,” Army said. “It just didn’t go our way.”
The Friars seemed to have all the momentum when Jones struck for the winning goal, making the most of a broken play on a two-on-two rush with center Joe Cucci. Jones drove hard down the left wing and pounced on the rebound from Cucci’s initial shot, stuffing the puck past Providence goalie Tyler Sims at the left post.
“I was just looking to go hard to the net and get something out of it,” Jones said. “I did.”
“We made some changes on the fly, we shortened the bench a little bit and everybody was in tune,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. “That’s what it takes to get points in this league. When you make changes, you need people to be aware and attentive and we were.”
Providence snapped its 100-plus minute scoreless streak against Braithwaite 6:17 into the third thanks to Norton’s accurate shot from the left circle that zipped into the top right corner. The Friars drew even just 2:20 later when Collins picked up a loose puck on the right side, slotting a backhander over a pile of bodies in front to knot the game at 2-2, but Providence couldn’t apply the finishing touches to what would have been an emotional victory.
Merrimack had the Friars fighting uphill from the opening period, striking first when Rob Ricci’s drive from the left point bounced off of Sims’ left arm and dribbled into the cage for a power-play goal at 3:16.
The bad bounces continued for Providence on a bizarre play early in the second, handing the Warriors a two-goal lead. J.C. Robitaille drove hard to the net off the left wing and his shot trickled through Sims and across the front of the empty cage. Providence winger Kyle Laughlin attempted to clear the puck and flipped it off the back of Friars’ center Nick Mazzolini’s leg, a carom that rolled into the net while Providence’s players looked on helplessly.
The Friars now face a daunting challenge down the stretch with home-and-home series against No. 7 Boston College and red-hot Boston University over the final two weekends. Providence could fall all the way into seventh place by the time all is said and done, providing a serious road block on the way to the TD Banknorth Garden and the Hockey East Championship.
“We’ve got to get a little more trust in ourselves right now,” Army said. “I think maybe our confidence is a little bit lower, and we’ve just got to keep getting better and go play the best hockey we can play. If we play well we’re going to have an opportunity to win.”