Following his team’s win over Cornell in Sunday’s East Regional final, Providence coach Nate Leaman was asked to compare this year’s team to the Friars’ 2015 national championship team.
While Leaman said he hadn’t had thought about the similarities between the two teams, there are some parallels in the way that each team got to the Frozen Four.
Both teams were the fourth seed in the East Regional held at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, mere miles from the Friars’ campus. And both teams won a wild opening game, only to revert to a tight, defensive style of play the next night to win the regional.
On the first point, Leaman and his players were quick to downplay the any advantage that playing in their home city had.
“They’ve still got to go out and win the game. I think some people seem to make a lot of it,” Leaman said of playing in Providence. “This regional did great attendance-wise, but at the end of the day, you got to go out and win the game. You can make all the fuss about all the fluff on the outside, but the game is played on the ice.”
To that point: the Friars were also seeded in the regional in 2017, losing to Harvard in the semifinals.
Still, there was no denying that Providence had the advantage in the stands.
“The fans were great,” Providence goalie Hayden Hawkey said. “It was great playing in front of our hometown crowd, everyone we go to school with, all our friends. But we haven’t really played in this rink since two years ago. So, it’s a brand-new building to us, too, and that was something we had to adjust to just like everyone else.”
This year’s team and the national championship team won in similar fashion as well. In both cases, the Friars won the first game in a shootout; in 2015, Providence beat Miami 7-5 in the opening game and on Saturday, scored six straight goals to rally for a win over Minnesota State. But in each case, the Friars reverted to their typical, tough to play against defensive style.
In 2015, Providence shut down Denver 4-1. And Sunday, the Friars beat Cornell at its own game, getting an early lead and refusing to give the Big Red any space in the offensive zone en route to a 4-0 win.
That defense has been a hallmark of Providence’s success this season, as Hawkey’s eight shutouts lead the nation.
“There are a couple of those guys who’ve been together for a while now,” Hawkey said “There’s not a better group of guys, we gel so well together, we trust each other fully. Everyone knows what everyone’s doing out there; we all know our skill sets and we stick to them. I think the trust is just so key to how successful we’ve been. Without relying on each other and trusting fully in each other, none of this happens.”
Yet, the group has gone relatively unnoticed for much of the year. It doesn’t help that two eastern defensemen, Massachusetts’ Cale Makar and Harvard’s Adam Fox, are Hobey Baker finalists. Makar and the Minutemen will join the Friars in the Frozen Four in Buffalo, while Fox and the Crimson were eliminated in the Northeast Regional semifinals last weekend.
But there’s plenty of talent on the Friar’s defense as well. The group has three NHL draft picks, led by junior captain Jacob Bryson.
“I don’t think he gets the credit that he deserves for whatever reason, you know me as the head coach hasn’t done a good enough job promoting him,” Leaman said of his captain. “He’s still the best defenseman I’ve ever coached, and he’s dynamic with the puck, he’s poised, he doesn’t force the game. That’s the thing that’s really special about Jacob, it hurts him with his points, in the way other people look at him, but he doesn’t force the game and makes the right play at the right times and he can handle as much ice as we give him.”
While he doesn’t have the lofty point totals of Makar or Fox, Bryson has still been a part of a power play that has been clicking as the Friars have gone deeper into the postseason. Providence finished last weekend with five power-play goals, including four Saturday against Minnesota State. That improved power play added to the Friars already physical game gives them the ability to beat teams in a variety of ways, something that Leaman thinks is important after the Providence power play wasn’t operating at full speed in last year’s playoffs.
“If you’re going to win at this time of year, I feel like you have to be able to score different ways and you can’t be a one-trick pony this time of year,” Leaman said. “The power play this year is definitely helping us.”