On Saturday night, Providence attempted a feat that would make the Friars the envy of the nation — being able to boast that they knocked off Maine, BU, and New Hampshire in the same week.
A combination of Providence (11-8-1, 5-7-1 HEA) penalty minutes and a superb effort from UNH (14-4-2, 8-2-1 HEA) special teams dashed the hopes of the unseating three of the top teams in Hockey East. When the dust had settled, the Wildcats found themselves atop the league with a 6-3 victory before a sold-out Schneider Arena.
Despite the fact that Providence came into the contest as the third least-penalized team in Hockey East, the Friars’ lack of discipline cost them all night long. Less than 30 seconds into the game, Providence was whistled for its first penalty of the night, and that seemed to set the theme.
“I’m very disappointed about the penalties,” said Providence coach Paul Pooley. “This year, it had been one of things we were avoiding. Finding a way for us to channel our aggression without taking undisciplined penalties is absolutely huge. Tonight we played like we were the most-penalized team in the league.”
As the second period was running out and the score at 4-3 in favor of the Wildcats, Providence’s Peter Fregoe was whistled for holding the stick, giving UNH a power play that extended to the start of the third frame. However, Dick Umile’s squad was penalized for a protocol violation to open the period and the teams opened play with four to a side.
“We got a huge break right off the bat with a chance to go on the power play to start the third period with the protocol penalty,” said Pooley
In a play that was descriptive of Providence’s struggles, Jeff Mason was whistled for holding just 20 seconds into the four-on-four. 16 seconds later, Friar netminder Nolan Schaefer was fishing the puck out the net.
Colin Hemmingway, Garrett Stafford, and Jim Abbott executed a gorgeous tic-tac-toe passing play, adding a four-on-three power-play tally to the board for the Wildcats and putting them ahead for good at 5-3.
“It was like swimming upriver for us tonight,” said Providence coach Paul Pooley. “They are a very opportunistic hockey club. It seems like every time we’d come back they’d score a power-play goal.”
Lanny Gare added an empty-netter at 19:29, bringing the final score to 6-3. Gare, Hemingway, and the return of Stafford proved to be too much for the Friars.
“They’re a very explosive hockey team and you can’t give them very much room at all. With their talent it doesn’t take much; any turnover ends up with three passes and then it’s in the back of the net. Steve Saviano and Sean Collins are great players for them too, very talented players as well.”
“Gare is really hot right now,” said Umile. “He knows what to do and things are going well for him. He’s making good decisions with the puck and he’s got a great shot. Getting into a groove like this is all about confidence and he’s got that right now.”
Overall, UNH converted three-of-eight power plays en route to the victory. Not to be outdone, the penalty kill thwarted five out of Providence’s six opportunities to preserve the win.
“On special teams, we’re starting to get there,” said Umile. “Obviously, Garrett Stafford adds a lot to it as far as moving the puck well and making good decisions. He’s a senior as compared to some of our younger guys.”
In net, Nolan Schaefer could not carry his form from a 43-save performance at BU. Providence’s senior netminder stopped 31 of 36, dropping his record to an even 6-6.
On the other side of the ice, Michael Ayers (13-4-2) did not play his best game, but made the stops necessary to win. Despite recording 37 saves on the night, the goaltender was relatively untested for much of the game as Providence piled up long-range shots from the perimeter.
The usually-impeccable Ayers, who was coming off a shutout of Yale, surrendered three goals, two of them coming on juicy rebounds left in front of the net.
Sophomore defenseman Jeff Mason took advantage of the situation, knocking home his first goal of the season and just missing a second.
After having played a stellar World Junior Championship, many expected to see freshman phenom Bobby Geopfert in net for the Friars, but a coaching decision to reward Schaefer for his performance at BU left Geopfert inactive since a relief appearance in the bronze-medal game.
The Friars, like Geopfert, will look to rest up and regroup as they travel out for a two-game tilt at St. Cloud next weekend. UNH will hope to carry its play over into league action.