Key absence put Providence’s focus on team defense, and better results follow

A few decades ago, Tigran Petrosian earned the reputation in grandmaster chess circles as a player who almost couldn’t be beat. The World Chess Champion for six years and a candidate for 30, he won fewer games than most players of his caliber but rarely lost. His name became synonymous with draws and impenetrable defense.

The Providence Friars have been playing like Petrosian of late, going undefeated over the past five games with a 1-0-4 record. Their opponents during that stretch: Merrimack, New Hampshire (twice), Boston University and Maine. That consistency has put them three points out of first place with a home-and-home series against last-place Northeastern this weekend.

“Anyone who can look at the standings can realize that it’s a tight league this year,” Providence coach Nate Leaman says. “In the second half, every league game we’ve played outside of a 2-0 win for us has been a one-goal game.

“That’s preparing us for the playoffs well. I told the team before our Maine weekend that everyone is playing for something this time of the year. There really are no bad teams in this league. We can expect every game to be extremely hard fought because everyone’s playing for something and everyone in the league is a good team.”

The Friars defense has approached Petrosian status. They rank third in the league, allowing an average of only 2.43 goals per league game.

“We lost Kevin Hart for something like five games in the second half,” Leaman says. “Kevin is one of our better defensemen. Then we played BU and UNH and both those teams use their defensemen so well in the offensive zone — it’s a huge strength for them.

“Losing Kevin and having the BU and UNH series so close to one another made us focus much more on team defense, especially on wingers.”

Leaman says he’s happy with his team’s play except for one glaring exception.

“Overall, I like where we’re at defensively,” he says. “I like where we’re at five-on-five scoring. But we really need to continue to improve our specialty teams. That’s the area that we need to improve to be successful.”

In particular, the power play. Although Leaman’s man-advantage units at Union ranked among the best in the country, their counterparts at Providence have not yet followed suit. Their conversion percentage (11.9 percent) ranks dead last in Hockey East.

“There are times when our power play has looked very good,” Leaman says. “When we played at UNH and they had the No. 1 penalty kill in the country, we were able to get two goals on them. We controlled the pace of the play, we read our options well and we attacked really well.

“But then there are times like our game against Merrimack where everything was forced, everything was deliberate. We held the puck too long, didn’t have good movement on the puck at all and allowed the penalty kill to dictate the pace.

“It’s definitely an area that we need to improve on to be successful. It’s probably the No. 1 thing that’s held our team back this year. But I think that it’s within our capability to have a good power play.

“I try not to look too much on percentages; I look much more on the plus-minus. Percentages can be deceiving. You can have a power play for 20 seconds and be 0-for-1. What matters is your plus-minus of specialty teams at the end of the game.

“At this point I could really care less what our percentages have been in the past. Everything’s got to look forward at this point in the season. We have to make sure we do our best on the power play Friday night against Northeastern.”

With three weekends left, the stakes are enormous. Providence could finish first; it could finish sixth. The difference between home ice and going on the road and the difference between a favorable matchup (if there is such a thing in Hockey East this year) and a tough one could be the difference between advancing to the Garden or pulling out the golf clubs.

But that’s not how Leaman is looking at it.

“You have to control what you can control at this time of the year,” Leaman says. “And that’s your team and your team’s performance and what’s inside your locker room and how you prepare for each game.

“We’re not looking at it as six games. We’re not looking at the standings right now. We haven’t discussed them with our group. We’re not looking at who’s playing who.

“With us having a young group and some inexperience, the only thing we’re focusing on is ourselves and trying to make sure we prepare the best we can for the Northeastern game.”

Vermont taking huge strides toward making the playoffs

About a month ago, I predicted that Vermont would be one of the two Hockey East teams left out in the cold. Perhaps I should be hired as a motivational speaker.

The Catamounts have won three straight and four of five. All four wins have been of the “four-point” variety, namely against the other three teams jockeying for the last two playoff spots (Massachusetts, Maine and Northeastern). A win not only puts two points in your column but it also denies two points to your closest competitors.

It’s a far cry from how Vermont played during January when it lost five straight and needed the final game of the month to pull out its first win.

“It’s really simple: We’re committed to playing a much better team game than we were in January,” Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon says. “We had a really good stretch prior to the break, through December and our [holiday] tournament, where we were 4-1-2.

“I don’t want to say we got complacent by any means because we certainly still were not in a great spot in the standings, but we were starting to play a little more individualistic, we weren’t doing the little things that bring teams — or at least our team — a chance for success. We lost confidence because of it.

“Of late, I think there’s just been more ownership taken by the players. That’s what you want as a coach right now. You want guys to be able to sit down collectively and hold guys accountable and say, ‘This is what we need to be successful. Is everybody committed to doing it? Let’s go!’

“That happened three or four weeks ago and they’re starting to play some good hockey because they’re playing for each other now.”

Freshman goaltender Brody Hoffman continues his stellar play. Last week he earned Hockey East co-rookie of the week honors, stopping 55 of 57 shots to lead the Cats to a road sweep at Northeastern.

“He’s been great all year for us,” Sneddon says. “There haven’t been many games — you certainly point to a few in January and maybe a couple in the first half — where he didn’t have his best game. But what he’s done for us is he’s allowed us the opportunity to win hockey games. The losses haven’t been because of Brody; it’s been because of what’s in front of him.

“He went through a little bit of a tough stretch just like the team did in January after we won the Catamount Cup and he lost confidence. As a staff we made the decision, just like you would do with a basketball three-point shooter who goes cold. You want him to keep throwing the pill until it goes in. We wanted him to know that we were confident in him and just kept playing him and he worked himself out of it.

“I really do think that he’s become better having gone through that adversity. He’s mentally tougher now.

“He never had a specific goalie coach prior to coming to the University of Vermont. [Assistant coach] Terry Lovelette has done a great job continuing to help him and to develop him. Brody is an absolute sponge, extremely mature for a freshman, and with the mental toughness of knowing how to deal with adversity. [Put it together and] you’ve got yourself a pretty good goaltender.”

Of course, Hoffman isn’t the only exceptional young goalie in the league.

“When you look at the goalies in this league right now that are young, I don’t know if there’s going to be a lot of offense in the future,” Sneddon quips. “But we appreciate Hoff and what he can do for us. He’s going to be very important to where this team goes over the next few weeks.”

The Catamounts offense has yet to score more than three goals in any 2013 game and lacks the Stålberg-caliber stud of past years but is grinding out enough goals to win.

“We don’t have three guys that just jump over the wall and are [automatically] going to get great opportunities,” Sneddon says. “We have to work for everything we get. Acceptance of that has actually helped us.

“We’re playing a much better team game. We’re understanding the team concepts of offense, what we need to do to score goals.”

Based on the numbers, the special teams haven’t helped much. The power play (12.5 percent) and penalty kill (80.2 percent) are both ranked ninth in Hockey East.

Sneddon looks at it differently. He doesn’t just like the Catamounts PK; he loves it.

“You can get wrapped up in statistics,” he says. “You have to be careful of that.

“I absolutely love our kill and what we’ve done over the last four weeks in particular. I think it continues to get better and better [even though] that percentage doesn’t look fantastic. We gave up a couple of goals this weekend but all off broken plays. I really like where it’s going. I don’t feel like we’re just an 80 percent [kill] team.

“It also matters what time of the game did it happen? In both games against Northeastern, we gave up the first goal on a power play and yet from that point on the kill [was great]. When it really matters the most — when you’re playing with the lead and trying to knock down their power play or killing a six-on-four — that’s when it really shines.

“It’s more like a feel thing than a statistic thing.”

Sneddon also said he feels the man advantage has turned the corner.

“Our power play was zapping energy from us back in early January,” he says. “If we could have declined it, we would have at times. Now it’s not.

“We’re moving the puck great. We’re doing a lot of good things. It hasn’t resulted in as much offense as we would like but we’re creating opportunities. We just have to finish.

“I see both [special teams] as improving despite the percentages.”

The Catamounts will need that improvement and then some over the final three weeks of the season. They face a scheduling gauntlet consisting of two games each against UNH, BU and BC.

“I wouldn’t call it a gauntlet because that’s being disrespectful of the three weekends we just played, where teams were desperate,” Sneddon says. “Our win against Maine and our two against Northeastern were as tough battles as we’re probably going to see physically and mentally.

“But I looked at it the same way [as most people] in the summer. I wanted to call [Hockey East commissioner] Joe Bertagna and thank him for the schedule.

“But if you look at this league right now, you see everybody is beating everybody. It’s a tough grind. So I guess I look at it as more of an opportunity for us. What a way to try to keep this thing rolling in a positive way going into the playoffs. We’re going against the league’s upper half and let’s hope we get some points each weekend and see where it goes.”

How ’bout them first-place Merrimack Warriors?

My last two columns have led with the Warriors, so I couldn’t make it a hat trick despite their move into first place, the latest ever for the program in Division I. But the feat does deserve mention.

Since joining the league in 1989-90 with a 3-18 record, Merrimack failed (with only one exception) to even come close to a .500 record until three years ago. (That exception was an 11-11-2 mark in 1996-97 with a team led by goaltender Martin Legault.)

What this program has done under coach Mark Dennehy since then is nothing short of remarkable. There are few tasks tougher than bootstrapping a program that has taken its lumps year after year and even more so at such a small school.

“In a lot of people’s minds, we’re not a powerhouse of the league,” Connor Toomey said after scoring the overtime goal last Friday to defeat Boston College and move atop the league standings. “[They] think in terms of the BCs and BUs. But the 30 guys in our locker room know we can play with any team in the league.

“We believe in ourselves. We truly believed tonight that we could win.

“First place feels pretty nice. It’s where we want to be.”

After Dennehy had some fun with the milestone, quipping, “It’s better than the alternatives,” he displayed the mind-set that has helped elevate this program to where it is today.

“That’s not our goal,” he said. “Our goal isn’t to be first in the league on the 15th of February. It’s to be No. 1 in the league in March.”

Hats off to Dennehy, the players, all those who helped make it happen, and to the fans who paid dues that bandwagon jumpers can’t even begin to imagine.

BC, BU lineups take disciplinary hits

Last Thursday, Boston University announced that sophomore defenseman Alexx Privitera had been suspended for the rest of the season for on-ice disciplinary reasons. A day later, Boston College followed suit with word that junior forward Kevin Hayes had been suspended indefinitely for breaking team rules.

These are, of course, significant losses to both lineups.

In the case of Privitera, two factors surprise me. First, the transgressions were on ice. Most disciplinary actions come from a player acting like a bonehead (or worse) off the ice. The team likes the player’s contributions while wearing the jersey but can’t abide by the failings when not wearing it.

Short of illegalities, an on-ice-fueled suspension seems a far worse condemnation of a player.

Then there’s Hayes. While he hasn’t been the most consistent of performers, he’s a key component to the Eagles offense. He offers size (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) to offset some of BC’s small, quick forwards. He was also the team’s No. 4 scorer at the time of the suspension on a team with a top-heavy offense.

Depth has been an issue for BC this year and the Eagles will be operating under a significant handicap until he gets back.

That’s not to say, of course, that the suspension isn’t warranted and shouldn’t stay in effect whether Boston College wins or loses upcoming games. Team discipline matters and anyone who argues that point with a coach who has won three national championships in the last five years is a moron.

I know nothing of the details. I only know this: I can’t see BC winning another national title this year without Hayes in the lineup.

“I’ll watch how he comes back from it and I’ll determine when he’s eligible to play for us again,” BC coach Jerry York said.

Congratulations to Jimmy!

The biggest of all congrats to Jim Connelly and his wife Maureen on the birth of their first child, Bridget Margaret (7 pounds, 14 ounces) last Saturday. Jim and Maureen, the best years of your life are just starting.