PROVIDENCE, R.I. — It’s no secret what got Providence here.
Superb goaltending and a diverse set of scorers propelled the Friars to a fourth-place finish in Hockey East, giving the Friars the privilege of hosting a playoff game for the first time in a decade.
Those traits were deployed once again on Friday night, as two under-the-radar freshmen – right winger Nick Saracino and defenseman John Gilmour – accounted for all of the Friars’ offense, while Jon Gillies made 35 saves as Providence outlasted New Hampshire 3-2 in a see-saw opening game of their quarterfinal series.
Saracino had a hand in all three goals, scoring two of them, including the game-winner.
The loss continued UNH’s late-season stumble, now with just one win in its last six games. The Wildcats received a good bounce-back performance in net from Casey DeSmith (23 saves), but couldn’t convert on the offensive end, in large part to Gillies.
“We outplayed them, but hey, we needed to put the puck behind them,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “We had enough chances to win it in the third, but they got it. Our guys battled all night. I thought we played a pretty good 60-minute hockey game.”
As has been the case all season, Gillies made some of the most dramatic plays of the night. Many of Gillies’ stops were athletic, outstretched stops, while his defensemen swept away dangerous rebound chances, including several during an extended spell in the defensive zone early in the third.
“I thought they did a good job of bending, but not breaking,” Providence coach Nate Leaman said of his defense.
The Friars were unsuccessful connecting on indirect passes along the boards and in the corners for most of the night, turning over the puck, a nagging problem that left Leaman disappointed after the game.
“We fought ourselves all night,” Leaman said. “We’re going to have to be much better tomorrow night. There were a lot of times we didn’t look like we were coached.”
But PC counter-punched well, bringing the game to the middle of the ice, snapping quick shots when entering the zone and forcing DeSmith to make additional saves.
Despite being thoroughly outplayed in the first period, the Friars quickly took the lead in the second.
Just 2:06 into the frame, Saracino snuck towards the net mouth from the corner and shoveled a shot past DeSmith’s glove.
The Friars added to their lead 13:27 into the period. With a tie-up in front of the UNH net, the puck got swatted to a wide open blue line, where Gilmour blasted a shot through the traffic and past DeSmith.
The Wildcats got a break, and a much-needed goal, just seconds later. With Noel Acciari in the box for cross-checking, Grayson Downing took advantage. As Gillies was taken out of the play by two Wildcats crashing the net, Downing picked up the loose puck and buried it into the open net to make it 2-1, just 20 seconds into the power play.
The shift in momentum continued into the opening minutes of the third. Downing was able to feed the puck to a wide-open Austin Block on the back door. Block made one deke and finished the goal on the backhand, picking up his 15th tally of the season.
But all it took was one turnover for Providence to retake the lead. With plenty of space on the left wing, the puck was given away to Saracino, who fired a quick wrister from the left faceoff circle into the back of the net, proving to be the game-winner.
“He wanted the puck,” Leaman remarked about Saracino. “I thought Nick was the guy on our team that wanted the puck most out there and each time he was out there, he did something with it.”
Amazingly, five of Saracino’s nine goals on the season have come against the Wildcats, leading Umile to quip after the game, “I’ve heard that name too often.”