PROVIDENCE, R.I. — It didn’t take long for spectators, experts, and fans to either prove or debunk one very obvious observation about the NCAA East Regional: One of the teams had a very partisan crowd cheering it on, and it wasn’t the higher seed.
For Providence College, it might have felt like divine intervention. Playing in front of a raucous crowd clad mostly in black and silver, the Friars rallied from a 3-0 deficit to upset top-seeded Minnesota State, 6-3, using four power-play goals, including two on a five-minute major in the late stages of the third period.
“This is a difficult night for us,” Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said. “We had a great start but not a great finish. We had a good first ten minutes (in the third period), but we took a penalty and couldn’t find out a way to get a kill. We had a decent push, but we couldn’t find a way to kill that penalty, so (Providence) gets to move on.”
The win marks the second straight year Providence won at least one game in the NCAA Tournament. It also continued a perfect bracket for Hockey East, which earned its first victory behind Massachusetts on Friday. The loss also prevented Minnesota State from winning its first national tournament game, despite earning its fifth regional berth since 2013 and sixth bid overall.
It’s sweet vindication for the Friars, who clinched an NCAA Tournament berth despite losing a three-game Hockey East series to Boston College in the quarterfinals. As the 13th seed in the Pairwise Rankings, Providence earned a date against the Mavericks, and the regional alignment gifted it a virtual home game at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. The arena serves as Providence’s home basketball arena, and the hometown crowd was very much in the Friar corner despite the “home team” wearing road uniforms as the lower seed.
“We knew there was going to be good energy from our fans,” Bryson said. “They always show us great support, even in our games back (at Schneider Arena), but (Saturday) was something special. The crowd was lively, and it gave us a lot of energy.”
The Mavericks took a 3-0 lead in a first period that saw them score twice in 30 seconds. Charlie Gerrard and Jake Jaremko staked Minnesota State to a quick two-goal lead, and an individual effort by Nick Rivera slipped a backhand shot by goalie Hayden Hawkey for the third.
“Marc Michaelis made a great play on the first goal,” Gerrard said. “He dumped the puck, we went hard to the net and buried it.”
Providence responded with a power play goal by Josh Wilkins, though, before the end of the first to regain some momentum. A potential Gerrard power play goal at the end of the period was waived off, further stabilizing the Friars despite the deficit.
“The bench was fine,” Providence coach Nate Leaman said of being down 3-0. “I think we’ve been down after the first period in seven of our last eight games. It’s nothing new, but it speaks to the character of the room in the belief that they can come back. We had a good start, but (Minnesota State’s) first two chances went in.”
Providence made it a one-goal game early in the second when Vimal Sukumaran ripped a snapshot by goalie Dryden McKay. That lit a spark under the Friars, who proceeded to buzz around McKay the rest of the period. They would tie the game when Jack Dugan cycled a wraparound pass to the front of the net, sliding the puck past the netminder’s pads to the waiting stick of Kasper Bjorkqvist. It tied the game at 3-3, completing the comeback in time for the end of the second period.
“I thought we had a good start,” Leaman said. “Minnesota State capitalized on a couple of their opportunities, and they’re a good team. We were fortunate to get to the locker room, and the first power play goal helped us in the locker room. Then Vimal’s goal got the building alive a little bit, and it got us going.”
In the third period, Sukumaran absorbed a check to the head that sent defenseman Connor Mackey to the locker room with a major penalty and game misconduct. The Friars scored almost immediately on their first offensive series, using the same passing play that set up their first and third goals. The puck found Tyce Thompson on McKay’s blocker side, and he buried the go-ahead goal less than two minutes into the extra-man opportunity.
“It was big,” Thompson said. “Any time you get a five-minute major, you have a chance to capitalize. Getting that first goal calmed us all down a little bit. It was a little bit of a relief. Then going down and having that confidence, we made some plays.”
It happened again less than two minutes later when Josh Wilkins scored his second goal (and second on the power play) with the same exact play. It was a simple execution by the Friars, who executed their game plan all night when gifted man-up opportunities. PC scored four power-play goals in total, with all but Sukumaran’s coming with a Maverick in the penalty box. It was perfect execution and vindication for a unit that drew an assignment against the fifth-best penalty kill unit in the nation.
“(Wilkins and Thompson) have a great chemistry there,” Leaman said. “They started on the power play together about three weeks ago. We moved Tyce to that unit, and they just have a good chemistry. Our power play was really good in the playoffs against Boston College, and it’s just carrying over right now.”
For the Friars, it’s onto the Regional Final for the second straight year. They became the second No. 4 team to stamp a ticket out of the first round this year, continuing a trend where multiple top seeds are toppled in the first game; since 2010, over half the brackets have seen multiple No. 4 seeds advance to within a game of the Frozen Four.
“After the BC series, it wasn’t a great feeling,” Leaman said. “Western Michigan lost, and we woke up the next day with a pretty good shot. Getting into the NCAA Tournament is about your body of work, and we had a great body of work. We challenged ourselves on the road, and I think it’s not failure but growing. We’re playing some good hockey, and I thought we played some good hockey against BC. We’re happy to be here, and we’re happy for the city of Providence. And we’re happy to have some fans here (on Sunday).”
“I think our sport is unique,” Hastings said. “You don’t see the parity in football or in basketball as you see with the 60 teams that we have. At this time of year, everyone’s earned their way here and everyone has the same goal, which is to extend your season. Providence did that tonight, and you have to take their hats off to them. That doesn’t take the sting out of playing on a Sunday when you were hoping to or planning to, but you have to give credit where credit is due.”