BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — All they wanted was one. The mission for the Providence Friars on Friday was winning their first NCAA tournament game since winning it all in 2015.
All it took was one goal Friday night for Providence to defeat the Clarkson Golden Knights to go to the East Regional championship.
The lone goal came from Kasper Bjorkqvist on a first-period power play, where he picked up the puck along the goal line on a pass across the faceoff circle and cut across the crease to push it past a shifting Jake Kielly. Bjorkqvist’s 15th goal was the only offense the Friars needed before transitioning into conservative play.
“Getting the early power play helped,” Providence coach Nate Leaman said. “It helped us get some confidence, helps us get some puck touches. We executed and did exactly what we wanted to do on the power play.”
A major aide in the defensive aggression was junior goaltender Hayden Hawkey, who turned aside 18 saves for the third shutout in Friars NCAA tournament history and the eighth of his career.
“He settled down, made some good adjustments,” Leaman said. “He made some big saves in the second period — one with his head and the other one where they hit the cross seam on the power play. He was a big difference in the game. The way the two goaltenders were playing, it wasn’t going to be a 4-3 game. Both those guys were locked in.”
Kielly made 26 saves for the Golden Knights (23-11-6).
By controlling board play and working the puck in the neutral zone, the Friars (24-11-4) played a hard, defensive-oriented game that factored with a lack of offensive aggressiveness. Since the Hockey East playoffs began, the Friars have won all four games by one goal and are 11-4 in one-goal games this season.
“In any hockey game, it’s better to play with a lead than chase,” Clarkson senior center Nic Pierog said. “I think they just tried to stay above us and limit our opportunities to score because they had the lead. They stuck to their game plan well and tried to limit our chances.”
The Golden Knights had a few strong opportunities in the third, including a chance by defenseman Aaron Thow, who cut across the slot to find a lane for a wrist shot that skirted wide. Kelly Summers gave Clarkson another challenging shot with six skaters on in the dying seconds of the game.
“It was hard to gain ice tonight,” Clarkson coach Casey Jones said. “The opportunities were there but we didn’t execute some of the plays down in our own net that we had. Our effort was there. At times we didn’t quite execute to our level that we’ve expected all year. I thought it was a hard-fought game and ice was tough to come by.”
For Leaman, the defensive effort didn’t stifle enough until the third period, when only three shots challenged Hawkey.
“In the first and second, we weren’t taking away space enough,” Leaman said. “They were trying to hit the weak side a lot through the neutral zone and I think because of that it put us on our heels a bit; we were sitting back.
“In the third period, one of the things we wanted was to get up on our toes and have it be our best period of taking away time and space.”
Saturday’s championship between Notre Dame and Providence showcases familiar opponents from prior seasons in Hockey East. While the two have never previously squared off in NCAA tournament play, the Irish hold a 8-5-2 record against the Friars, with a 2-0 Hockey East playoff record.
“There’s a team that kicked our butt last year,” Leaman said. “We’re familiar with them from being a Hockey East opponent. I was impressed with their transition game today. It’s a big-time game; it’s going to take our best.”