Three weeks ago, the Providence College Friars were sitting in their dorm rooms, the control over their season ripped out of their hands after losing to New Hampshire in the Hockey East quarterfinal. They were a bubble team for the NCAA tournament, meaning they needed to have luck on their side if they wanted to keep their season alive.
The Friars, of course, did make it to the tournament as the 15th seed in a field of 16, but the extra wait and worry proved worthwhile late Thursday afternoon. Two weeks after claiming the East Regional, Providence topped the Omaha Mavericks, 4-1, in the 2015 Frozen Four semifinals at the TD Garden, advancing to its first NCAA championship game in 30 years.
“We’ve been focusing on ourselves, that’s the big thing,” Friars coach Nate Leaman said in his postgame press conference. “It’s the lesson we learned against UNH in the playoffs. It’s probably the best thing that happened to us to prepare us, to be quite honest.”
Providence had to focus on itself early in Thursday’s game, because if it focused on the scoreboard, it would have been a very frustrated team. The Friars came out and peppered Omaha goaltender Ryan Massa from every angle, only to fall short each time.
The most painful missed chance came when Brandon Tanev collected a bounce off the end boards to gain possession behind Massa, but Tanev’s shot slid through the empty crease, hit the post and bounced away.
It would have been easy to understand if the Friars were aggravated when the first period ended in a 0-0 tie, but it was the type of adversity they faced throughout the season.
The Friars were the preseason favorite in Hockey East, but a 1-3-2 start due to scoring struggles quickly earned them the reputation of a disappointment. PC rebounded by winning seven of its next nine games, but had lost the attention of the league thanks to outstanding starts by BU, Vermont and UMass-Lowell.
So Providence focused on keeping steady with its game plan and effort and let the rest work itself out.
The Friars went with the same plan in Thursday’s game. They rebounded from the frustrating first period by increasing the pressure in the second. They owned time of possession, and their persistence finally paid off when, with 8:58 left, Noel Acciari collected a loose puck after a scrum in front of the net and tossed a backhander into an empty net.
The Friars doubled their lead nearly four minutes later. A defensive breakdown by Omaha left Mark Jankowski alone in front of the net, and he easily flipped a shot over Massa to give Providence the 2-0 advantage.
“The main thing was to stick with our game plan,” Jankowski told reporters. “If we were getting pucks inbound to net, we would be able to pop a few. So, without getting frustrated and sticking to our game plan and sticking to the process, we could be able to bury a few.”
At the other end, Omaha was struggling to get much of anything going. By the end of two periods, the Mavericks were being outshot, 33-16, and had nothing much to show for their Frozen Four experience other than the patch on their jerseys and an incredible showing from Massa, who finished the game with 44 saves.
Midway through the third period, Omaha finally created some drama when Tyler Vesel connected with Jake Guentzel in the slot, and Guentzel beat Providence goaltender Jon Gillies to tighten the score to 2-1.
But any momentum the Mavericks could have gained from the goal was quickly shot down 24 seconds later. PC’s Trevor Mingoia scored on a one-timer to boost the Friars back to a two-goal lead with 8:50 remaining in regulation.
“When we got that goal, I thought we had a chance,” said Omaha coach Dean Blais. “But when they scored right away to make it 3-1, you could feel the energy go out of the bench. Give them credit. That was a big goal for them.”
Providence sealed its trip to Saturday’s national championship game with an empty-net goal via Nick Saracino with 30.7 seconds left in the game.
As the 15th seed, the Friars will be regarded as the underdogs no matter who they face next. But they have faced doubt all season.
“It’s funny how our season has gone,” Leaman said. “Because we went from being a preseason No. 3 in the country, preseason picked to win Hockey East to getting off to a slow start. We were struggling scoring. Every article that was being written was about how disappointing we were, how it was a disappointing season, how they’re not living up to this.
“Now we’re getting back to a point where we’re underdogs and people are going like, ‘How did they get here, how do you expect that?’ And it’s kind of funny how the rollercoaster has gone.
“But I can tell you, in the locker room, we had a couple of meetings, and right after we lost to UNH, we had a meeting. We said, ‘Our goal is to win a national championship.’ We believe we can do it.”
Photo by Michelle Jay/Along The Boards