Providence shocked the college hockey world last spring when they defeated Boston University for their first-ever national title. This weekend, the Friars looked the part of defending champions as they swept a home-and-home weekend series against UConn.
After Friday night’s 4-0 loss to the Friars, UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh told his players to get back to the basics and not overthink things. While the Huskies were completely outmatched in the game in Providence, they responded on Saturday, playing a much stronger game
Although the Huskies fell by a score of 3-2, the effort was much better tonight, and it certainly made an impression on both coaches.
“We obviously knew they were going to make a push after they lost last night,” said Providence coach Nate Leaman.
Saturday’s contest was a physical one. UConn was keen to show that they weren’t intimidated by the No. 5 team in the country. Despite a number of chances for both teams, the first period finished scoreless with Providence leading in the shots department, 9-6.
“I simply asked the team to come out and compete tonight and just play. Don’t think so much, just make plays,” Cavanaugh said. “Last night we got paralyzed a little bit by playing with fear. I was pretty proud of our effort tonight.”
However, Providence took control of the game with a pair of goals in the second period. Defenseman John Gilmour opened the scoring for the Friars, burying a shot from the slot past UConn goaltender Rob Nichols just 2:32 into the period.
It was a tough break for the Huskies, who had just killed off a penalty, but they weren’t able to clear the puck from the zone. The defending national champions made UConn pay for that mistake.
Gilmour grabbed another goal right at the end of the second to push Providence’s lead to 2-0. It was nearly identical to the first – a slap shot from the slot that beat a screened Nichols.
It appeared that Providence had the momentum going into the final period, but a bad Friar penalty on Brandon Tanev on the third period faceoff gave UConn a chance to get back into the game.
“In the third period, to start, I think we took a poor penalty and gave them a little momentum,” Leaman said.
UConn would capitalize just 15 seconds into the power play. Shawn Pauly and Max Letunov combined to find a wide-open Tage Thompson at the left post, who went top shelf on Providence netminder Nick Ellis to cut the deficit to one.
Thompson has been unstoppable on the power play this season. Tonight’s goal was his 11th of the year, and his nation-leading 10th on the power play.
“We came out in the third period and responded right away with the power play goal,” Cavanaugh said. “I thought we were taking it to them.”
Providence would respond seven minutes later, restoring the two-goal lead. Ryan Tait cleaned up a loose puck in front of net, poking a rebound past Nichols for the eventual winning goal. While Tait was the scorer, Leaman credited the whole fourth line with creating the crucial goal.
“We came up with a big fourth-line goal there,” Leaman said. “Our fourth line has been playing really well in the last four or five games.”
Down 3-1 with time winding down, Cavanaugh made the decision to pull Nichols for the extra skater with around two minutes remaining. The decision immediately paid off. UConn had constant pressure on the net, before Pauly punched home a goal with 1:25 remaining.
“Pat [Kirtland] made a great play in the corner to kick the puck out to me, and I just tried to jam it at the net,” Pauly said. “The rebound came back to me and I saw an opening upstairs so I just tried to put it there.”
The assists on Pauly’s goal were credited to Kirtland and Letunov, his second of the night. The point brings Letunov’s season total to 33, tying the UConn Division I rookie scoring record.
UConn continued to pile on the pressure in the final minute, but despite the extra skater, could not grab the tying goal.
UConn (9-17-4, 4-10-4 HEA) now sits in ninth in Hockey East with just four regular season games remaining. In order to secure a home playoff series, the Huskies must finish in the top eight.
The Huskies have two critical series over the next two weeks: two games with Northeastern, who sit seventh in Hockey East with 14 points, and two with New Hampshire, who sit eighth with 13 points. UConn is just a point behind with 12.
“This is essentially playoff hockey now,” Cavanaugh said. “When you get to this time in the year, everyone’s jockeying for position – it’s playoff hockey.”
Pete Harasyko is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.