Providence’s bid for a repeat title sees sudden ending

Minnesota-Duluth celebrates Karson Kuhlman’s double-overtime goal against Providence on Friday (phtoo: Melissa Wade).

WORCESTER, Mass. — In the 10 years after Denver won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2004 and 2005, only four defending champions were able to earn a return trip to the tournament.

Not one reached the Frozen Four.

2016 NCAA Northeast Regional

See complete coverage at Regional Central.

In two of the four “successful” years, the defending champs got bounced in the first round (Boston College in 2011 and 2013). In the other two, the champs earned a first-round victory but couldn’t get any farther (Michigan State in 2008 and Minnesota-Duluth in 2012).

The cumulative scores in those four season-ending games: 20-6.

Such was the challenge facing the Providence Friars this year. They weren’t just the Friars. They were the defending national champion Providence Friars. And with that came the bull’s-eye.

They’d suffered the early defections to the pros that are part and parcel of playing games in the national spotlight. Those were no small losses: All-American goaltender Jon Gillies and second-leading scorer Noel Acciari.

But this year’s Friars earned not only a chance to defend their title in the NCAA tournament, they seized the No. 1 seed in the Northeast Regional.

In the end, it wasn’t enough.

They took their first-round game into double overtime and had their chances, including a clanged post in the first OT. But much like their triple-overtime loss a week earlier to Massachusetts-Lowell in the Hockey East semifinal, it wasn’t enough.

It wasn’t enough that Nick Ellis, who so ably replaced Gillies in the Providence nets this season, stopped a Northeast Regional record 54 shots.

Records don’t matter when the other team is throwing its sticks and gloves into the air in celebration while your own heart sinks.

The agony of the 2-1 double-overtime loss to Minnesota-Duluth on Friday contrasted with the euphoria of a year ago.

“It’s two opposite ends of the spectrum, winning the national championship and then getting knocked out,” senior forward Kevin Rooney said. “You know you have a team in the locker room that could have done it. It’s just disappointing.”

The Friars gave credit to Duluth but felt their own play had come up short.

“It’s very simple,” Providence coach Nate Leaman said. “We didn’t have our A game tonight and we got beat by a better team.”

It was a bitter pill to swallow for champions who had worn their crown with pride and dignity. But like their 10 predecessors, they came up short.

Leaman, however, remained beaten but unbowed.

“I’m proud of this team in a lot of ways,” he said. “I’m proud of their hearts tonight. They didn’t have their heads or their legs, but I was really proud of their hearts and how they battled.

“It was a tough season being national champions because you know you’re getting everyone’s A game. I was really proud of how they handled the season.

“But this time of year, it’s going to be a bounce one way or another way.”

And this year, unlike last year, the bounce went the other way.