Providence outmuscles Cornell for NCAA East Regional title, fifth Frozen Four appearance

Josh Wilkins (15) gives Providence a 2-0 lead over Cornell in the second period on Sunday (photo: Melissa Wade).

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A day after rallying from an early deficit against Minnesota State, Providence made sure it didn’t have to do the same against Cornell.

The fourth-seeded Friars used a shut-down defensive effort to blank the Big Red 4-0 in the East Regional final Sunday at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center and advance to the fifth Frozen Four in school history. Providence won the program’s only national title in 2015 after also winning the East Regional in its home city.

The Friars will face either Quinnipiac or Minnesota Duluth on Thursday, April 11. Providence junior Josh Wilkins was named the regional’s most outstanding player after scoring three goals and adding two assists on the weekend. Hayden Hawkey made 19 saves for his nation-leading eighth shutout of the season. He was aided by a Friars defense that made it hard for the Big Red to get many good opportunities.

“The guys were great all night, boxing guys out and clearing lanes,” Hawkey said. “It’s easier to play when you can see the puck.”

While much has been made out of Providence having a home-ice advantage, the Friars didn’t see it that way, knowing that they still had to execute their game plan.

“I think that even though we had our fans here, we’re playing at a different rink and we’re staying at a hotel like everybody else,” senior forward Scott Conway said.

On Sunday, that game plan consisted of outmuscling and shutting down a Cornell team that did the same to Northeastern on Saturday. It worked, as the Big Red had just 10 shots on goal through two periods against the Friars, including only four in the second.

“It was a lot about the battle of the red line tonight,” Providence coach Nate Leaman said. “If they got the red line, then their forecheck is going to get going. If we got the red line, then we could get going and try to cycle in there. We were definitely trying to work them low and I thought the second period we had some really good grind shifts.”

That formula is a familiar one for the Big Red, who are used to doing it to their opponents.

“They did exactly what we’ve been doing to many teams for a lot of years,” Cornell coach Mike Schafer said. “Get the first goal, and I just thought they were outstanding staying above us for the rest of the night. They made things very difficult.”

The Friars opened the scoring at 10:20 of the first when Jacob Bryson lofted an innocent-looking shot from the point on goal. But Austin McGrath (25 saves) couldn’t control the rebound, and Greg Printz batted the puck past the Cornell sophomore to give Providence a 1-0 lead.

Wilkins crashed the net and put home a loose puck to make it 2-0 Friars 1:40 into the second, while Scott Conway scored a power-play goal with six-tenths of a second left in the period to make it 3-0.

“That was the dagger,” Schafer said.

The power play was a potent weapon for Providence on the weekend — it scored four times on the man advantage Saturday against Minnesota State.

“If you’re going to win at this time of year, you have to be able to score different ways,” Leaman said. “You have to be balanced if you want to win this time of year, and the power play is definitely helping us.”

The Big Red had some chances in the third, including a blast by Yanni Kaldis that hit the post just as a Cornell power play expired. Cornell also had a no-goal call reviewed later in the period, but the play stood.

Brandon Duhaime’s empty-net goal capped the scoring at 18:13.

It was a frustrating end for a Big Red team that overcame numerous injuries to win its first NCAA tournament game since 2012.

“Our slogan this year was ‘Enjoy the ride,'” Schafer said. “I told them after the game that I’ve been in this business 33 years now and I can’t remember seeing a group of athletes that persevered and overcame adversity and never had any excuses all year long.”

Providence ended the weekend having scored 10 straight goals after trailing Minnesota State 3-0 in the opening game of the regional.

That helped get the Friars back to the Frozen Four after Notre Dame scored the game-winning goal in the final minute of last year’s East Regional final in Bridgeport, Conn.

“The guys have been waiting to get back to this point all year long,” Leaman said. “I think there is a lot of ache in our team from losing last year in this game the way that they did. When the tournament came, you could see that this is what they were playing for in the regular season.”