Sayonara to the cellar: Providence’s fortunes are looking up

After back-to-back last-place finishes, Providence fans couldn’t be too happy to see this year’s Hockey East coaches’ preseason poll. It had the Friars pegged for a third straight residence in the cellar.

Not the kind of hat trick you’re looking for.

And when the Friars followed up an opening night win over Northeastern with four straight losses, the glass-half-empty crowd probably started thinking, “Here we go again.”

Which hardly would have been fair.

Of the four losses, two were of the one-goal (plus empty-netter) variety against national powers, second-ranked Minnesota-Duluth and third-ranked Boston University. Another loss was in overtime to Massachusetts-Lowell.

“I certainly didn’t like losing the games, but I was encouraged most importantly with the way that we were playing,” PC coach Tim Army says. “I just felt that we just needed to keep doing it, keep playing well, trying to do the things that we were attempting to do. At some point some of those one-goal losses will turn your favor.

“The biggest thing at that point is to just make sure the kids stay on task and keep doing the things that we’re trying to do. If you don’t deviate and stay with it, you’re hopeful that some of those games may turn in your favor.”

That’s exactly what happened this weekend when Providence took three of four points from Massachusetts. The Friars tied on the road on Friday and then won back home the next night.

“They were two very highly contested games they could have gone either way,” Army says. “I thought Amherst played extremely well in both games.

“They’re a little bit like we are. They’ve been in every game. They’ve been good all year long. We both went into the weekend with better teams than our records would have indicated.

“I was really impressed with their team. They really skate and they’re aggressive and they’ve got some guys who can really move it. They’ve got some dangerous offensive players and they’ve got great goaltending.

“It was a close weekend that could have gone either way.”

Last year, Army made a conscious decision to focus on defensive play after the wheels came off of that particular team component in 2008-09. The decision worked, dropping the goals-against average from a catastrophic 3.93 — almost a goal higher than the second-worst team in the league — to 3.37.

The style change, however, came at a price. The Friars averaged only 1.70 goals themselves, almost a goal a game a game worse on the offensive end than the second-worst Hockey East team.

In a sense, Army had to rob Peter to pay Paul. This year, he’s been able to open up the offense without the defense unraveling (other than the second game at Duluth).

“The ’08-09 season was just a bad year for us,” Army says. “We were a bad team and we played poorly. If you just look at all of our numbers in all of our categories, we just weren’t very good.

“We were young on one hand and I think there was a little bit of a disconnect. We just really didn’t do anything well. We had a little bit of a spurt when [goaltender Alex Beaudry] came after Christmas, but that was really it. We leveled off back to the level that we had played at throughout the year.

“Going into last year, reflecting on the ’08-09 season, we needed to get some defensive structure back into our team. We needed to establish our defensive identity as a team. We were pretty strict and we probably weren’t colorful to watch, but I just felt that in order to go forward we had to establish that first and I think we did.

“As we moved into this year, we felt that we were deeper, we were quicker and we had more offensive resources in our lineup. So going forward, we had to maintain that same defensive identity, but we needed to find a way to score more goals. In order to make a jump in our league, in order to have more success, we needed to bring that 1.7 goals a game number up.

“A lot of the things that we’ve tried to do have been to try to upgrade our opportunity to score. The players that you have is obviously critical for doing that; we’d looked at our recruiting and [gotten] quicker and deeper. Now we can generate more power plays. We need to score more on the power play and we need to generate more pucks to the net.”

The greater depth is borne out in the Friars’ scoring. After Kyle MacKinnon’s five goals, nine other players have scored goals, with another seven factoring in with assists.

“That depth is obviously a good thing,” Army says. “Kyle’s gotten off to a good start. Ian O’Connor, Ben Farrer and Matt Germain have provided some offense as well for us in that senior class, so that’s a real positive.

“I think we have a lot of other players we can rely on and who help spread the scoring out. You can’t just rely on one or two players. Everybody needs to contribute.

“So as we’ve worked to build the team, we’ve gotten more offensive resources. It’s a positive to have a lot of different people contributing.”

The Friars stand at .500 within the league, four points behind first-place Boston University. They’re undefeated at home, where they’ll be hosting Merrimack and Vermont this weekend.

Army knows that momentum can be a fickle thing and it’s important to keep it moving in the Friars’ direction, despite the challenges of the opponents.

“We’ve got two very good opponents,” he says. “Merrimack is playing really well. I think they’re one of the better teams in our league. There’s no question in my mind of how good a team they are.

“They’ve been building. Two years ago they made a lot of strides and last year, obviously, they had a terrific year in making the playoffs and they certainly had a great quarterfinal series with BU.

“They’re very talented. They’re well coached. They’ve got some size, they’re physical, and they’ve got some scoring. They obviously have a great player in Stephane Da Costa, but they also have some very good offensive players around him.

“With what they went through a year ago, they’ve learned how to win. They’re very comfortable playing in tight situations and I think they’re very confident that they can win those games.

“Vermont also is very, very good. They’re big and they’re physical. They’re very disciplined defensively; they’re hard to get through. They’ve got good goaltending, but they do a great job of limiting opportunities to the net and they’ve always got speed and some offensive pieces that make them very dangerous.

“We’ll focus first on Merrimack, but both teams pose challenges for us at home. In our league, every night is very difficult.”

But maybe a little less difficult this year than the last two.

Thanks to Scott Weighart for his assistance.