This Week in Hockey East: Providence finding rhythm, ‘understanding more of the style we need to 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)
Brian Pinho sits second in team scoring for Providence with nine goals and 21 points (photo: Melissa Wade).

It’s no secret that non-league play hasn’t been kind to Hockey East this season.

There are a few non-league contests remaining (the Beanpot is the most notable, but with three of the four teams from Hockey East, those are what you would consider zero-sum contests), but for the most part, we can tally up which teams have been successful out of conference and which teams simply have not.

Providence, right now, has the best non-conference mark with a 7-3-0 record in their 10 games. Combined with a 7-4-1 league record, it’s no surprise that of the 11 Hockey East teams, the Friars carry with them the highest PairWise ranking.

Using that context, it’s also possible to deduct that when March rolls around it may be the Friars, just three years removed from winning its first national championship, could have the best chance to carry Hockey East’s water into the NCAA tourney.

To date, though, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the Friars. While wins have come throughout the season, so, too, have some poor efforts on select nights, something any coach will tell you can be frustrating.

Providence routed RIT at home on a Friday, 8-3, only to fall a night later to the same Tigers team, 4-0. They went on the road in early November to face Massachusetts and fell 5-2, only to return home two nights later and win 7-2. Those inconsistencies are areas that coach Nate Leaman understood that his team needed to address.

And since returning from the break, it seems the Friars are finding a rhythm.

They opened up with a tournament championship in Pittsburgh at the Three Rivers Classic, outscoring their two opponents 8-1 in the two games. A 5-0 shutout of crosstown rival Brown in the Mayor’s Cup and last Saturday’s 5-2 win against Merrimack in a game Providence trailed, 2-1, kept the train rolling.

“I feel like we’re understanding more of the style we need to play in order to be successful,” said Leaman, “which, unfortunately, take a little while to get across.

“We had some practices after exams where we really focused on areas that were weaknesses. We’ve come back and I think we’re better in those areas, that’s helping.”

Leaman also understands that while he has some strong upperclassmen in his lineup, this is a team where possibly the most talented players might be in the sophomore class. Players like Josh Wilkins, Kasper Bjorkqvist and Vimal Sukumaran up front and Jacob Bryson and Spenser Young on defense comprise a big portion of this team’s high-end talent.

The difference between Providence’s underclassmen and their freshmen and sophomores is the knowledge of how to win. Certainly players like Brian Pinho, second on the team in scoring and a member of the Friar’s national title team, understand what it took to win that title and can help bring along the younger players.

But since the dramatic title game at the TD Garden in 2015, the Friars haven’t advance to a Hockey East final or won an NCAA tournament game.

That is where this year’s team has the opportunity to take a major step forward. And having things begin to take form as the Friars enter 2018 is certainly a very good sign that this could be an extremely competitive team in Hockey East down the stretch.

“This team, we’re learning more of what it takes,” said Leaman.

Going back to Pinho, the true senior leader of this year’s team, he is possibly playing the best hockey of his career at the right time. Last week, he scored against both Brown and Merrimack and helped set up three other goals. He has nine goals on the season, just three off of his career-best 12 from a season ago.

“Brian Pinho might be playing his best hockey his last three or four games,” said Leaman. “His feet are really moving and he’s just comfortable all over the ice.

“He didn’t score for a little while. Now, he’s kind of caught up.”

Indeed there was a stretch early this season where Pinho’s offensive output may have opened eyes. He registered points in just one out of the team’s first nine games, but since then has registered 17 points in 13 games.

Leaman says that even when he wasn’t scoring, he knew he was doing the right thing and that the points would eventually come.

“Brian always does the right thing,” said Leaman. “That’s part of him coming in and playing the wing the first year and learning what it takes. Having a lot of older guys ahead of him. But he had a lot of older guys to look up to when he got to the program. Now, I think Brian is that older guy and I think he’s doing a terrific job being that leader that our team needs. He’s really comfortable with that right now.”

The Friars have certainly positioned themselves well for the home stretch. Besides the non-conference success that might help Providence qualify for its school-record fifth straight NCAA tournament, the 7-4-1 mark in Hockey East places the Friars five points behind first-place Boston College with a game in-hand.

If there is any downside, it’s the fact that the Friars play eight of their final 12 games – all Hockey East contests – on the road. To date, Providence is 3-4-1 in road games as opposed to 8-2-0 at home (they are 3-1-0 at neutral sites).

“I’ve seen growth with our team in the second half with just sticking with it, our mental toughness,” said Leaman. “That’s probably the biggest aspect [of playing on the road].

“When you fall behind and have a double bogey, just coming back and staying with it as a group of executing your game and playing your type of game, that’s what you’ve got to do on the road.

“The road is tough. It’s really tough in our league to win on the road. You’ve got to really focus and you’ve got to be mentally tough. You have to make sure that you’re bringing it. I look forward to it.”

Transfer Schutz an immediate addition to UML lineup

It’s not very often that we see a player transfer and become eligible midseason.

And it is ever less often that said player can jump into a lineup.

That, though, happened in recent weeks at UMass Lowell.

A season ago, Chris Schutz, transferred to Lowell from Robert Morris at the semester break. He had never played a game for the Colonials, but still had to sit out the equivalent of one full year, meaning he wouldn’t be eligible to play for the River Hawks until after the holiday break.

Schutz was immediately given an opportunity by coach Norm Bazin, inserted into the lineup two weekends ago at the Catamount Cup. This past weekend, he spent much of the time playing alongside two of Lowell’s top forwards – Ryan Lohin and Colin O’Neill – as Kenny Hausinger nursed an injury.

Schutz was also given time on the power play and made it pay on Saturday in Lowell’s 8-3 win over Massachusetts, one-timing his first collegiate goal from the top of the left faceoff circle.

“I like his skating,” said Bazin. “He’s a 6-foot-plus right winger, he goes fairly hard. He gives us an extra right shot who has some size. We look forward to his game continuing to grow.”

Reaching a milestone

Speaking of UMass Lowell, a congratulations goes out to Bazin for earning his 200th career victory last Friday night with a 6-0 victory over Vermont.

All but 38 of those wins have come at Lowell (the other 38 came in three seasons at Division III Hamilton). If you’re doing the math at home, not including this season, Bazin and his staff have averaged better than 25 wins per season at Lowell, an impressive tally for any Division I coach.

“I didn’t even know about it,” said Bazin when asked about the milestone. “It’s terrific. I think I have a great staff, so I’m very fortunate.”