Sitting three points behind Boston University for the last home ice slot, Providence could not afford to split two games as it did with Northeastern and Massachusetts. There was an urgency for the Friars to parlay a 6-1 win at Lowell on Friday into a huge game against New Hampshire on Sunday afternoon.
And that they did.
A sold-out Schneider Arena watched as Providence took it to the Wildcats early and often, picking up two crucial points with a 5-2 win.
The victory marked the first two-win weekend for the Friars in Hockey East play, and the three-game win streak is the longest since a 7-0 start to the season. It’s hard to imagine that a team can give up 48 shots on goal and consider it a defensive victory, but Providence coach Paul Pooley saw it as such.
“We outshot UNH pretty well when we lost to them earlier in the season 6-3,” Pooley said. “So shots on goal aren’t as important as quality chances. As long as the shots are coming from the outside, that’s fine. We’re concerned about shots from the dots in.”
With all the rubber being flung around, senior netminder Nolan Schaefer was the difference in the game, turning aside a career-high 46 shots. Interestingly enough, four of the last five times that Schaefer has made 40 or more saves it has been in a losing effort.
“Nolan has got a good edge to him right now. He’s focused and he’s hungry,” said Pooley.
“UNH is a really great team and they have an awful lot of offense. I thought our team did a terrific job of keeping the shots to the outside,” said Schaefer. “They had a lot of shots, but it’s a lot easier to save them and see them through.”
Schaefer reminded many of the form he displayed two years ago as a sophomore stalwart during Providence’s NCAA run.
New Hampshire was able to mount a threat, cutting the lead in half early in the third period on a Lanny Gare power-play tally. Thirty-six shots on goal into the game, the Wildcats put one past Schaefer, with Gare sliding a wrister through the five hole to make it 2-1 with plenty of game left.
However, Peter Fregoe responded at the 6:45 mark of the third to put the Friars back up by two. Linemate and co-captain Devin Rask slipped a gorgeous pass through two defenders and onto Fregoe’s stick for an easy tip past UNH goaltender Mike Ayers.
Although normally impeccable, Ayers struggled in net for the Wildcats. Midway through the second period, he allowed two goals in less than 12 seconds. When all was said and done, he surrendered five goals against on just 26 shots.
“This is Hockey East and Providence is a very good team. Maybe they haven’t won as many games as they would like to, but they’ve beaten all the top teams now and this is the best league in the country,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “This a very good team without a doubt and we just didn’t get things done tonight.”
Friars co-captain Jon DiSalvatore registered the goal of the game at the 14:36 mark of the third period. The fifth goal, his 13th of the year, put the proverbial nail in the UNH coffin. Despite breaking his stick on a partial breakaway on his last shift, DiSalvatore sped in again on Ayers, lifting a beautiful shot up over the goaltender’s shoulder while being dragged down from behind.
Providence has proven that it can hang with the best of the best, beating all four of the top teams in Hockey East: BC, Maine, BU, and now UNH. With four of their last five games against BU and Maine, the Friars will hope to keep up the good work against the league’s iron.
While fans around the country will watch Monday’s Beanpot championship with careful eyes, Providence will prepare for a treacherous two-game set at Maine’s Alfond Arena, a place where the Friars have not won a regular-season contest since 1987.