Providence starts season strong, but still room for Friars to keep improving

Providence coach Nate Leaman (2019 Omar Phillips)
Providence coach Nate Leaman is hoping to keep doing mid-April press conferences this coming spring (photo: Omar Phillips).

Heading into the season, Providence coach Nate Leaman said in our preview that his team was so young, he had no expectations.

For anyone who thought that meant “set the bar low enough that you can clear it,” it’s time to raise the bar.

A lot.

Providence did a number on Maine, winning 7-0 while outshooting the Black Bears, 59-29.

“When you have seven new players in the lineup and a new goaltender, you honestly don’t know what to expect, you don’t know how to read your team,” Leaman says. “It was nice for us to get the win, but we certainly found a lot of things that we can improve on.”

Greg Printz, who scored 11 goals last year, got a Texas hat trick (four goals in a game).

“He has really good hands around the net. That’s how he got his goals,” Leaman says. “He got to the right areas of the ice, he got the puck off quickly, and he showed one of the best attributes of his game.”

Goaltender Michael Lackey, a graduate transfer from Harvard, posted the shutout on 29 shots, showing that he might backstop the Friars to the NCAA tournament the way he did for the Crimson a year ago.

“It was nice to see him come in and play so well,” Leaman says. “I thought he showed pretty good poise. He showed his athleticism and his quickness. That was a bright spot for us in the game for sure.”

An asterisk does need to be added to the one-sided win, however. Providence may have dismantled Maine, but New Brunswick did the same thing one night later, defeating the Black Bears, 5-0, while outshooting them, 32-14. So perhaps we can’t read too much into the Friars’ lopsided win.

Even so, it’s a big two league points in the standings. You can’t start a season much better. Providence now moves on to three non-league games the next two weekends, starting with Holy Cross, along with an exhibition against the US Under-18 National Team.

Usually, the schedule works the other way around. Non-league contests and exhibitions first. Save the league games until you’re hitting on all cylinders.

But flipping the schedule on its head was by design, both Leaman’s and Maine coach Red Gendron’s.

“We were scheduled to play three times in a row at the end of the year and neither of us really wanted to do that,” Leaman says. “We wanted to break that up and play one game in the first half, two games in the second.

“The date that worked for both of us was the opening date. Our school had wanted us to move a game there for homecoming weekend so that’s what we ended up doing.”

Truth be told, for a team like Providence that has earned a berth in six straight NCAA tournaments, the nonconference games aren’t really of much lesser importance than those in Hockey East. They all factor in getting an invite to the dance.

“No doubt, every game means the same,” Leaman says. “We had a rock fight with Holy Cross last year in their building. They’re a tough team to play against. I know they’re going to be young, like we’re young, so there’s a lot of energy there.

“There are a lot of areas that we really have to improve on if we want to be a good team. So that’s our focus.

“Then we’ll get the USA team on short rest. It’ll be good for our guys to play back-to-back for the first time this year.”

Ruh Roh

At the other end of the spectrum is Maine. It’s one thing to take a whipping from a top-10 team. It’s another to do that and follow it up with another at the hands of a Canadian team. Yeah, it was just an exhibition against New Brunswick and stellar goaltender Jeremy Swayman didn’t play.

But putting the two stinkers together yields a 12-0 drubbing and a 91-43 shot disparity. Ouch.

The Black Bears were going to be breaking in five new defensemen, so there figured to be growing pains in the D-zone, but one expected the returning talent up front to avoid a double goose egg.

Fortunately, help may be on the way. Next week, Maine hosts Alaska Anchorage, a team that went 3-28-3 last year. If that doesn’t cure the Black Bears’ ills, it’s gonna be a long season.

Patience for Merrimack

I’ll admit that I have extraordinarily low expectations for Merrimack this year. You don’t take a last place team, bring back only 11 players while adding 18(!) new faces, and expect to have much success. Certainly over the first half, if not the entire year.

Not unless several of those freshmen are blue-chippers, and that isn’t the case. The only NHL draft pick on the roster is junior Patrick Holway, who transferred from Maine. The super-elite recruits just aren’t the players Merrimack gets its fair share of. It must go after athletes with other qualities than NHL pedigrees.

That’s not to say that coach Scott Borek isn’t doing exactly what he should in turning over the roster so it can be as competitive as possible in future years. Arguably, he is doing the right thing.

My point is that Warriors fans will need to show a lot of patience. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

And while the Warriors couldn’t hold their one-goal lead in the third period at Lake Superior State on Sunday, there was a glimmer of hope even while getting swept.

Nonconference positives

While Merrimack’s two losses at Lake State can’t be discounted, the opening weekend was otherwise good nonconference news for the league. In what was arguably the key matchup, Boston University blew out Union on the road 7-3, outshooting the Dutchmen 44-13, including 21-2 in a second period that saw the Terriers score five times.

UMass Lowell swept Alabama Huntsville, also a mostly expected result, but two wins are still two wins.

As a Hockey East old-timer, I must admit I’d like to see the good guys win every game against Atlantic Hockey teams, but those days are gone. So Connecticut’s tie at Sacred Heart doesn’t set my heart aflutter, but the tie doesn’t make it sink either.

Peeking ahead to next weekend, 16th-ranked Wisconsin visits Boston College and then Merrimack. The biggest challenge, however, will be Lowell traveling to top-ranked, defending national champion, Minnesota-Duluth.