Leaman sees more than just baby steps at Providence

Providence missed the playoffs each of the last three years, during which the Friars compiled a cumulative 13-52-16 record in Hockey East. They then lost their top three scorers and five of their top seven.

Small wonder that Hockey East coaches, in their preseason poll, picked PC to finish last.

So what exactly is Providence doing in third place? The Friars are one of the best surprises of the new season, posting a 4-2-0 record within the league.

They got it started with a stunning opening weekend in which they toppled Boston University 5-3 on NESN, and then followed that up with a 6-4 win over Massachusetts. PC coach Nate Leaman — hired during the offseason because of his considerable success building Union into an ECAC power — appeared to be a miracle worker right out of the chute.

“Obviously, I was happy to get four points in Hockey East because I know how difficult that is,” Leaman says. “But I felt like we got some bounces. I just felt like we had a lot of work to do. You’re happy to have success, but you see how much work you have to do.”

The following weekend wasn’t quite as successful, but the Friars still got a tie against the defending national champions, Minnesota-Duluth, currently ranked 10th in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll.

“They’re not the defending national champions for nothing,” Leaman says. “The first night, they out-competed us and I was really unhappy with that. I was really unhappy with our battle level.

“The second night I thought we played pretty well and managed to come back when we were down in the third period and tie the game up against a pretty good hockey club. We got better over the weekend.”

A weekend at Maine, baptism by fire for any young team, resulted in PC’s first two league losses, the first coming in overtime and the second a one-goal game until a last-second empty-netter. Close, but no cigar.

The losses dropped the Friars’ league record to .500 and overall record below that mark, but their strength of schedule after those games stood at eighth in the country.

“The first night, we were really rattled in the first period from the crowd,” Leaman says. “I thought we lost our composure and we were running around a lot, but from then on I thought we played pretty good hockey. We came back twice in the third period and played a good overtime. We had a couple of opportunities that we didn’t bang home and they banged it home on their first opportunity.

“The second night, I thought we played well, but I didn’t think our transition to offense was that good. We played much better defensively, but we didn’t execute our transition to offense and they did.

“But overall, hey, that’s Hockey East and it’s getting back to work on Monday and not putting our heads down. You can’t get too high or too low; there are 27 games.”

Jaded PC fans might have been forgiven if they assumed that the opening weekend had just been a mirage, but it wasn’t. Last weekend, the Friars swept Vermont, outscoring the Catamounts by a collective 10-3 margin. Keep in mind the Cats had earlier defeated top-ranked Minnesota, the only blemish to the Gophers’ record.

“I thought that [maybe] things had a way of evening out,” Leaman says. “Maybe we deserved a little bit better in Maine, maybe we didn’t, but we found a way to win the two games. Now it’s just important that we stay even-keeled, we stay in our process, and understand it’s about our work ethic and our standards.”

In the preseason, Leaman challenged senior goaltender Alex Beaudry to raise his level of play, saying, “It’s an open battle right now.”

Not any longer. Beaudry has played every minute in the PC crease and has earned that time. Last weekend, he stopped 59 of 62 shots.

“Our goaltender has been our best player, there’s no doubt about that,” Leaman says. “He’s hiding some of our mistakes. Our focus right now is making sure we’re improving upon those mistakes, because I think Alex has played terrific.

“He’s given us a chance to win every game. I really like the way he’s playing.”

At the other end of the ice as well as the experience spectrum, two freshmen have provided much-needed offensive firepower. Ross Mauermann leads the Friars in scoring with a 3-6–9 scoring line. Stefan Demopoulos was another leader with a 2-4–6 line before missing last weekend with concussion-like symptoms.

“We came into the season with only one player that had more than 10 career goals,” Leaman says. “That could be a concern, but we’re getting good contributions from everyone. That’s going to have to continue for us to be successful. We’re a team where everyone has to contribute.”

All in all, it’s been a highly successful start to Leaman’s rebuilding program for Providence. And with only a single league game in November, there’s time for the Friars to grow before mistakes start showing up in the standings.

At Union, Leaman took over a program that had enjoyed only two winning seasons since joining the ECAC in 1991. (The Dutchmen had finished last four times and next-to-last twice before his arrival.) Over the course of eight years, Leaman steadily built it into a 26-10-4 power, the ECAC regular season champion, and an NCAA tournament team.

He’ll be looking to apply that same recipe for success at Providence.

“I thought we were successful at Union because we took it one day at a time,” he says. “We just tried to take baby steps in improving the program one day at a time, one month at a time, and one season at a time.

“That’s completely our focus here as well. I’ve been very encouraged by the support of the administration. Right now, my focus is on just really looking at it one day at a time, showing up tomorrow, and figuring how can we improve.”

At the top again

Boston College headed into last weekend as the nation’s No. 1 team and looked every bit the part in dominating Maine 5-1 on Friday night. Although Massachusetts upset the Eagles one night later, knocking them down to No. 2 nationally, the early indications are that they’ll once again be a favorite to reach the Frozen Four and challenge for their third national championship in five years.

“We had some major concerns [coming into this season] because that particular senior class of Gibby [Brian Gibbons], Joe Whitney and Johnny Muse was so instrumental in our success the last number of years,” BC coach Jerry York said after the Maine game. “[We’d be missing] that leadership; a goaltender who played almost every game; Cam Atkinson, our leading goal scorer; Jimmy Hayes, who was really starting to be a dominant player at our level; and even Philip Samuelsson. So all of a sudden we had a lot of voids as we analyzed our team coming into this year.

“But players have really stepped up their game. [Goaltender] Parker Milner, for sure. I think we’re getting excellent play from our defensive core, even though it’s a small number: Brian Dumoulin, Patch Alber, Tommy Cross and Edwin Shea. They’ve really picked up their game.

“We’ve really got some dynamic players on all three lines. When I looked at it [in the preseason], I wasn’t really sure where our offense would come from because Gibby and Joe and Cam produced so many goals. But they’re all contributing very well.

“It’s still early, but it’s been a good start for us. Some of my concerns [now] aren’t the concerns I had in September.”

What possible concerns could York have now? After all, his team is ranked second in the country. It’s at the top of the Hockey East standings. The Eagles have the league’s No. 1 overall offense (4.30 goals per game), the No. 2 defense (2.40 goals against per game), the No. 1 power play (27.3 percent) and No. 2 penalty kill (90.6 percent).

Yeah, coach, that team really sounds like a heartburn special.

In truth, though, York did have concerns going into last weekend that at least the Maine game allayed.

“We’ve been giving up a lot of shots on goal, 36 or 38 shots on goal, but I thought tonight our structure and defense was much better,” he said after the Eagles held Maine to 21 shots.

Milner had also been giving up too many rebounds, a flaw he remedied with focused practice throughout the week.

“Parker controlled his rebounds so much better this evening,” York said.

With the flaws disappearing, was York becoming like Alexander the Great, who found himself left with no worlds to conquer? Even the injury sustained during the Maine game, a shoulder injury to fourth-liner Danny Linell, will sideline the freshman for only a couple of weeks.

“I’m a typical coach,” York said. “I always want us to get better. We’ll review the film and talk to the club about some different areas.

“I’m always one for moving the puck quicker and faster. I think we’re pretty good at it, but there’s still some improvement we can make in that area. We have good skill players. They move pucks very well. Now I’m saying, ‘Let’s move them even quicker.'”

Even quicker?

That sound you hear is of other Hockey East coaches groaning.

Still hasn’t found what he’s looking for?

Coming into the season, one of Maine’s biggest concerns was its goaltending. The top save percentage among its netminders last year was .894 and arguably no team can win at this level with that caliber of performance between the pipes. Maine coach Tim Whitehead, however, expressed confidence in sophomores Dan Sullivan and Martin Ouellette.

“I’m very confident that these two guys are going to really surprise people this year,” Whitehead said before the season started. “We’re going to be very determined to play great team defense in front of them to give them the opportunity to take the next step. I love those two guys and am very confident down the road they are going to be elite.”

Going into last Friday’s game against BC, Sullivan and Ouellette had split time, with Sullivan elevating his stat line to a promising .914 level.

He did not, however, look very good against the Eagles, giving up four goals before getting the hook 2:16 into the second period. Clearly, it was a big step backward.

Ouellette played well in the relief role and stopped 25 of 28 shots the next evening against New Hampshire, but the weekend leaves him at an .891 save percentage and Sullivan at .882.

Should Maine fans begin singing the U2 classic, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and looking ahead to next year? Whitehead remained optimistic after the BC game.

“Martin came off the bench and played quite well and made some big stops,” Whitehead said. “He had a good game.

“Obviously, it wasn’t [Sullivan’s] best night. On a couple of goals, he looked pretty sloppy. I’m not going to lie and say he was playing his best. This was a tough night for him, but it’s the first tough game he’s had.

“He’s been great and it’s not an accident. He paid the price over the summer, training extremely hard, him and Marty both.

“They’re both way ahead of where they were at this point last year. It’s tough to say that after a 5-1 loss, but they are. They’re practicing better and playing better. [Sullivan] will bounce back. He’ll play better next time.”

Quick hits

• Congrats to Massachusetts for a huge win over BC on Saturday night. Not only was that the first league win for the Minutemen, but it also should have given that young team an injection of confidence.

• Congrats also to Massachusetts-Lowell for its thrashing of Boston University, 7-1. No, that’s not a typo, 7-1!. The River Hawks outshot their nationally ranked foe 15-3 in the opening period and never let the Terriers get off the mat.

“It was a great outing for our guys,” new Lowell coach Norm Bazin said. “We certainly got our confidence and took advantage.”

Not surprisingly, BU coach Jack Parker was disgusted with his team’s performance.

“It was a horrible game; not one guy played well,” he said. “They [BU players] played like they are better than they are and they need to give themselves a long look and live up to that because they don’t play the game the way it is supposed to be played.

“Give Lowell credit, but we were a pond hockey team tonight. We think we’re good, real good, but we’re not a good team. [The BU players] need to realize that they’re playing like a last-place team in this league. They think they’re better than they are.”

• That series between Merrimack and Northeastern had its plusses for both teams. The sixth-ranked Warriors (who got two first-place votes in the poll) remained undefeated and took three of four points on the weekend, never a bad thing. From the Huskies’ perspective, at least they were able to salvage a point (though they certainly wanted more) and took a top-10 team into overtime both nights. Getting a tie at the Lawler is a feat these days.

• A big-time congrats to New Hampshire for continuing to rebound from that brutal start.

• Here’s hoping that Vermont can crawl out of the hole it’s dug for itself. The Catamounts have an 0-4 league record, getting outscored 18-6. It’s hard to believe that its lone victory is also the lone loss by top-ranked Minnesota.