Providence turning season around after 1-6-2 start in Hockey East play

Brian Pinho (PC - 26) - The University of Massachusetts Lowell River Hawks defeated the Providence College Friars 2-1 at 12:27 of the third overtime in their Hockey East semi-final meeting on Friday, March 18, 2016, at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Junior forward Brian Pinho is averaging a point per game for Providence with 30 points in 30 games this season (photo: Melissa Wade).

One of the catchphrases you will head a lot of coaches use is a “team’s identity.”

Almost every coach will tell you that learning and understanding that identity takes time. Some call their team a work in progress from Day 1 of the season right through to the final game.

But establishing an identity certainly is crucial. And when players don’t understand what that identity is or should be, they too often find themselves struggling.

That was the case early for Providence.

The Friars, two years removed from the program’s first national title and a season after the team captured a share of the Hockey East regular-season title for the first time in history, got out of the game slow.

A 1-6-2 mark in league play in mid January left many, most notably coach Nate Leaman, scratching their heads.

That, though, has changed and a big part has been the Friars ability to understand what type of a team they need to be.

“We’ve gotten to a point where we can really understand what makes us go, what our identity is and what makes us successful,” said Leaman. “I really like the way we’re playing, how fast we’re playing.”

The result is the nation’s longest winning streak – nine games – that has taken the Friars from near the bottom of the Hockey East standings all the way to fifth and just five points out of first place with four games remaining.

The wins on that streak have been impressive. It began with a victory over Vermont and then a two-game sweep of UMass Lowell. Sweeps of New Hampshire, Maine and, most recently, Connecticut, have the Friars understanding this isn’t a team along for the ride. This team is championship caliber.

While there have been plenty of combinations up and down the lineup, the most notable has been the play of Providence’s top line of Erik Foley-Brian Pinho-Josh Wilkins has quickly established itself as one of the most dominant in the league.

In the nine games, Pinho has four goals and 11 points; Foley six goals and 12 points; and Wilkins, two goals and eight points.

Leaman points to Pinho, the team’s leading scorer with 30 points, and his leadership as a major reason this line is successful.

“Brian’s quietly one of the best leaders I’ve been around,” Leaman said. “That line [struggled] early. Josh was a freshman and Erik was distracted with World Juniors.

“I think Brian did a lot of heavy lifting for that line. Now that the other two guys have come along, they have great chemistry.”

That line, along with the rest of the cast of Friars, also seems to be playing with more zip than early in the years.

“It’s [puck] support and the quickness of our support,” said Leaman. “That’s what we’ve figured out. That’s what makes this team go. When we support the puck it allows us to play really fast.”

The other thing that has improved has been the play of goaltender/workhorse Hayden Hawkey. Prior to this winning streak, Hawkey’s GAA was 2.31 and his save percentage was .905. He was barely top 40 in goaltending statistics.

Over the last nine games, Hawkey has a 1.89 GAA and a .922 save percentage, a significant improvement in each.

“He gives us a chance to win every night,” Leaman said of Hawkey. “That’s the biggest thing with Hayden. It’s tough to be successful in our league if you don’t have very good goaltending. He keeps coming along. He keeps progressing.”

Progressing just like this entire team that now seems to understand its identity.

River Hawks defy odds vs. Boston University

Prior to last Friday, UMass Lowell had faced a team that the following Monday would be playing for the Beanpot title.

In those nine games, Lowell was 1-8-0.

Last Friday, the River Hawks faced Boston University, three nights prior to the Terriers taking on Harvard for the Beanpot title. So using that historical – though somewhat useless stat – you might have wanted to bet against the River Hawks.

The reality is that an impending Beanpot final appearance really has little to do with a game in between the annual February tournament. But, Lowell did fall behind 2-1 to the Terriers after giving up a back-breaking goal, a 3-on-5 shorthanded goal to BU’s Bob Carpenter.

The River Hawks persisted, though, and after Ryan Lohin tied the game later in the second, the power play cashed in with less than eight minutes remaining when Kenny Hausinger buried the game winner.

“It was a wild game,” said Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “It was a game of ebbs and flows. They scored a shorty, which was unfortunate for us. But the guys did a very good job of putting it in back of them and looking forward.”

The fact that Lohin and Hausinger were the heroes on a big stage – both of them are freshman – might be eye opening for some, but not for Bazin.

“I think they’re been that good all year,” said Bazin. “They just weren’t finishing. They’ve been very good on the penalty kill. They’re the first guys over the boards and usually as a coach you don’t put guys over the boards if you don’t trust them. I trust those two guys.

“They’ll keep garnering playing time and [Friday] it added up to power play time as well.”

Little decided with two weekends left

Call it typical of Hockey East, but as we head into the final two weekends, almost nothing is decided.

Massachusetts and Maine are the only teams that know their playoff destiny. The Minutemen and Black Bears will be on the road in the first round of the playoffs. That’s all we know.

Everyone else is very much up in the air. Six different teams can still finish first. Only four teams know that, if they have to play a first-round series, they will be at home. And no team has clinched a first-round bye.

Here is highest and lowest that each team can finish:


And yes, the team that sticks out most is Vermont. The Catamounts can still win the regular-season title. But they can also finish in 10th place. That’s a pretty big range.