BUFFALO, N.Y. — There’s a saying in sports that big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.
Santana Moss said it approximately a decade ago, when he played college football for the Miami Hurricanes, but it has retained a universal application for any athlete capable of rising to the moment.
In college hockey, it could mean a player whose team always seems to win games when he scores, or a player who scores in bunches during key moments.
In other words, it’s the kind of player like Josh Wilkins. Wilkins is Providence’s leading scorer and the only Friars player with more than 40 points entering the Frozen Four. He is one of the most prolific point producers in the nation and stands alongside names nominated for the Hobey Baker Award, but he offers a flair for the dramatic that helped boost his team to its fifth national semifinal appearance and first since 2015.
“The puck kind of finds me sometimes, but it’s about having those situations to score,” Wilkins said. “You have to bear down. Sometimes those opportunities don’t (work out), but if you get a good crack at the puck, you can put it in, score and help the team get some momentum.”
Wilkins enters Thursday’s game against Minnesota Duluth with 19 goals on the season, but he has been on a tear since the latter stages of the regular season. Since a Feb. 23 game against Massachusetts, he has scored 10 goals in nine outings, including a hat trick against Connecticut. He scored a goal in the regular-season finale, a win over Boston College, then added two more in the Hockey East quarterfinals.
He saved arguably his best performance for the NCAA tournament, where he scored three goals for the Friars, including two in the first-round matchup against Minnesota State. It was part of a five-point performance that boosted Providence to Buffalo.
“I think there was a confidence [in the East Regional],” he said. “We were relaxed even though it was a pressure game. You know that if you lose, your season is over, so it was important for us to stay relaxed and poised. That’s what led to our success.”
The success came in no small part due to special teams. Four of Providence’s 10 goals against Minnesota State and Cornell came via the power play, with Wilkins tallying two goals and two assists in those scenarios as an aggressive Friars attack pounded two of the nation’s top-rated penalty kill units. Thursday, the team plays a third in the Bulldogs, who are killing opposing opportunities to the tune of 85.7%.
“[Providence] is a fast-starting team and very aggressive,” Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. “I go back to the [2016 NCAA Northeast Regional]. It was an unbelievable hockey game that went to double overtime. It had great pace, with hard ice all over. We were fortunate enough to win that game [2-1].
“The power play was outstanding against Mankato and Cornell,” he said. “So it tells me that we have to stay out of the box. [Providence] is probably riding a lot of confidence.”
“If you look at the major statistics across NCAA Division I, it’s Providence and Duluth right next to each other on every stat,” Providence coach Nate Leaman said. “Scoring offense, scoring defense, power play, penalty kill, save percentage. [There’s] not a big difference between the teams. I think it’s going to come down to a lot of will and want and desire, who can influence their game on the other team and special teams.”
With respect to the 2016 postseason, Wilkins didn’t join the Friars until the next fall, when he made an immediate impact with a 31-point campaign, third best on the roster. He duplicated that effort in 2017-18 before this year’s breakout.
Over the past two seasons, Providence has won 21 games in which he has scored a goal. But even he acknowledged that he changed as a player, regardless of what the statistics might say.
“I came into school around 150-160 pounds, and now I’m at 180 pounds,” he said. “It’s just been about size and maturing [physically]. College hockey is about getting the time to develop. [Leaman] stresses confidence. There were spurts during my freshman and sophomore years where I was good, but there were times when I also wasn’t very good. I think this year, I’ve tried to keep consistent and dial in every game to be a big-time player.”
It’s that big-game attitude that now has him readying for his own shot at the national spotlight. He was playing for the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey League when the Friars won the national championship in 2015, but Providence hasn’t qualified for the Frozen Four in the years since.
He is now standing as a potential X-factor, the kind of player that could raise a second banner at Schneider Arena if he can first lead his team through the defending champions.
“I watched that game and saw the fluke goal go in,” he said of the 2015 national championship game against Boston University. “I saw how PC rallied after that to [win the national championship]. This was a school that really pushed to get me into college, and it’s worked out for me.”