Although Providence couldn’t pull off a second consecutive weekend sweep, dropping last Saturday night’s game at Vermont 2-0, the Friars still look like a team on the rise.
“What’s encouraging is we’ve been playing eight to nine freshmen a night,” Providence coach Nate Leaman says. “I really like what the potential of our team can be this year. But potential is a dirty word.”
While unrealized potential can be the bane of any coach, this year’s freshmen have gotten an early start on realizing theirs. And that goes beyond goaltender Jon Gillies, who looks like the star of the group, as well as defenseman John Gilmour and forward Paul de Jersey, who have both already scored twice and totaled five points.
“It seems like each one of our freshmen have had big games,” Leaman says. “Steve McParland has had a big game. Mark Jankowski got the game-winner up in Vermont [on Friday] and led our team in scoring chances. Brandon Tanev was really good up in Vermont.
“It just seems like we have a different freshman forward each night stepping up and playing well. With the veterans we have, I like our depth. We’ve also had three guys injured, so I think when we get those guys back that will also help increase our depth.”
Gillies, however, has so far been the biggest piece to the puzzle. Following the graduation of Alex Beaudry, the goaltending position was left wide open. Expectations were high for Gillies, a third-round Calgary draft pick, but you never know with rookies.
He’s answered all questions so far, posting a 1.80 goals against average and a .932 save percentage, numbers that rank second and tied for third in Hockey East, respectively.
“He really has a great composure about himself,” Leaman says. “There’s really nothing that rattles him. He’s gotten run over, it seems, once a game and it doesn’t rattle him. The time of the game really doesn’t rattle him. He’s extremely mature for being a ’94 birth date, especially [being] in net and especially carrying the load for us.
“He’s really been practicing hard. His work habits in the weight room and his work habits on the ice have been very good. That carries over into the games when you do that. He’s been competing every shot.”
As a result, Providence ranks third in the league in defense (2.12 goals against per game) and third in penalty kill (87.5 percent). The offense ranks fifth (2.88) but could use some more help from the power play, which has converted at only a 12.1 percent rate (eighth).
“Our power play is struggling,” Leaman says. “We just haven’t been able to find the chemistry that we’d like. But that can also be a plus, too, because if we get our power play going, then maybe we can be that much better.
“We’ve generated a lot of chances every game. Being this young, finishing our chances is something we definitely have to improve upon. On Saturday night against Vermont, we had 21 shots [attempted] in the second period but only four of them hit the net.
“We need to bear down on our power play and on finishing our chances. Those are two things that we definitely need to improve.”
Winning three of the last four games may be a byproduct of Providence’s trip to Miami three weeks ago. The Friars faced the fourth-ranked team in the country and took both games into overtime. They may have returned with only one tie to show for it, but that meager result belies the benefits.
“I saw our team attack,” Leaman says. “That’s what was the most encouraging sign. If you saw the focus in practice we had that week, if you saw the pregame skate when we were out at Miami and the way that we came out and played for 60 minutes and the way we attacked both nights, [you’d see why] I was really encouraged.
“The disappointing part is that we put 38 shots on net Friday night and we had a lot of opportunities to win the game and we only tied the game. On Saturday night, they came out and scored first and we were playing from behind. We showed a lot of character by coming back, coming back, and coming back in the game, but ultimately they won it with a minute left in overtime.
“But it was a good series. It gave us a little confidence.”
Those two games at Miami are part of a deceptive 1-3-1 record on the road compared to a perfect 3-0 mark at home.
“Three times this year we’ve been on the road against the home team’s home opener,” Leaman says. “We had that for BU and then Miami and then Vermont. All three of those are full barns. They’re loud places and they’re going to be tough places to play.
“So it’s been encouraging to see how we performed in those games. All our road games have been winnable. But at the end of the day, there’s a fine line between moral victories and winning. It’s a step our program [needs to take.]
“We’re playing a little young right now. We’re continuing to grow. But that’s a big step that I really want us to tackle this season, turning those playing-well-on-the-road games into victories.
“It’s a bigger step than a lot of people think, but it’s something that if you want to be good in this league — if you want to be a top-four team in this league — then you have to do it.”
Massachusetts: Close but only one cigar
As introductions between a league and a new coach go, Hockey East’s to Massachusetts coach John Micheletto ranks among the harshest. Check out the gauntlet from which Micheletto’s Minutemen have just emerged: two games against Boston College, the near-consensus top team in the country, two more against 11th-ranked Boston University and another against No. 9 New Hampshire.
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“A lot of people have asked me, ‘Geez, wouldn’t it be nice to start with an easier schedule?'” Micheletto says. “First of all, I think that’s a little disrespectful because there aren’t any easy games in Hockey East. But also, I’d much rather get after it right away and see how we match up, see where we need to improve and feel good about the positives.
“I’ve talked to the guys about it. We want to be among the very best and we’re going to have to play these teams somewhere along the line come March and April, so better to get to them early, know what we have to do to get better so hopefully we’ll be at that level at the end of the season.”
The Minutemen have played at a level agonizingly close to that ideal. They led Boston College 3-0 going into the third period and then 4-2 heading into the final four minutes of regulation before losing in overtime. In a rematch two weeks later, they led 2-1 with 11 minutes left but lost in regulation 3-2.
The losses to BU didn’t rank quite as high on the rip-your-heart-out scale, but they were close. On the road, UMass trailed by just one with 10 minutes left. Back at home, it led 2-0 early in the second and then was tied 2-2, with two minutes left in regulation.
Close but only exploding cigars. Close, though, to a team that can go places. Micheletto didn’t inherit players bereft of talent or heart. And those players have bought into the program.
“I’ve been really happy with our guys,” he says. “I don’t think there’s much more I could ask for in terms of effort and their willingness to try the things that we’re asking them to do. At this stage of the process, they’ve done an unbelievable job, for the most part, of assimilating the information into their everyday habits.
“It’s not quite 100 percent right now and there are times that we falter or get away from what we can do and are good at doing. But in the big picture and [considering] the schedule that we’ve had up to this point, our consistent compete level and our execution of the game plan has been great.
“Other than the fact that I’d like a few more wins at this point, I don’t have any other concerns.”
Fortunately, UMass earned a cigar last Friday against UNH. The Minutemen took their highly ranked foes into overtime — here we go again — but this time came out with the victory. And it was no fluke. They outshot New Hampshire 13-8 in the scoreless third period and 4-0 in overtime.
“We certainly had proven the weekend before that if we continue to stay the course and do the things that we’re very good at, we can have success on most any given night,” Micheletto says. “So it was nice for the guys to be rewarded.
“A lot of times, sports can be funny. Sometimes you don’t get the reward that you deserve and sometimes you get a reward that you didn’t deserve. That’s the reality of it. It’s not always fair, but on that night it happened to be. I thought we executed a little bit better, so it was nice to get that overtime power-play goal.”
Moving forward, another reason for optimism lies in the performances Kevin Boyle (1.99 goals against average, .932 save percentage) has provided between the pipes.
“We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve got three guys that are battling like crazy on a daily basis to get the nod,” Micheletto says. “I’m happy to have one of the toughest decisions every weekend on who to play between Kevin, Steve Mastalerz and Jeff Teglia.
“Kevin won the right to step up on Friday night and gave us every opportunity to win against UNH, which obviously warranted him getting the start again Sunday afternoon against BC.
“He had another strong showing. I’m sure he was unhappy that the guy at the other end had one more save than he did and ultimately that’s always how you measure yourself. But in game situations Kevin has proven himself very well and we hope that that continues because it’s only going to drive the competition between him and his goalie mates to a better level.”
Warriors for the defense, Dennehy for the laughter
With a sweep of Northeastern that gave Merrimack seven of eight points over the two weekends, Merrimack moved into a tie for second in the standings. It’s quite the position for a team that lost so much talent to graduation.
A surprising amount of its offense has come from the blue line. Three Warriors defensemen rank in the top five of Merrimack scoring, led by Jordan Heywood’s four goals and four assists. Heywood scored twice in the win at Northeastern on Friday night but was hardly alone. All five Warriors goals came from defensemen.
When asked to comment on that curiosity, Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy deadpanned, “Coaching.”
After the laughter died down, he added in a more serious vein, “If you’re going to score goals the way the game is played now — as defensive as it is — your defensemen have to get in on the rush.
“I love defensemen who want the puck. We talk about it a lot. We work on it a lot. It’s definitely part of what we do.”
Senior Kyle Bigos, who recorded 17 points last year but had missed five games this season due to injury, joined in the blueliner scoring on Friday with one of this own. Dennehy added more comic relief when asked to comment on Bigos’s goal.
“Which play?” Dennehy asked. “The nice one-timer goal or trying to move us up the penalty minutes [list]?”
Turning serious once again, he added, “The Biggs is a presence out there and we missed him while he was gone. It’s good to get him back. He needs to play a little bit smarter and he knows that, but he gives you everything he’s got and he’s done that since Day One. It’s very nice to get him back in the lineup.”