Thursday, March 24, 2016

Battle-Tested Champs Await Test From UMD

WORCESTER, Mass. -- What Providence has done this season is not common, and it shouldn't be looked upon as easy.

The Friars limped into last year's NCAA Tournament as the "last team in," and ended up winning the national championship out of the fourth seed in the East Regional.

Not only are the Friars back in the tournament, but they've built off a national championship. Who does that?

(What I mean by that is look at Providence last season and this season. This is a better team than one that won the title last year -- I won't even argue the point, it's that obvious to me. Think about that. How often do you see a team in any sport at any level win a major championship, then field a better team the following season? It doesn't guarantee Providence anything in this tournament, but it's an incredible thing to ponder and nothing that happens this weekend or in Florida should take away from what these players and coaches have accomplished in the last year and change.)

Well, not many teams in college hockey do, in case you were wondering.

Head coach Nate Leaman might have turned a few heads at his press conference here Thursday, when he declared "out of the past ten national champions, only four of them had made it back to the tournament."

2006 national champion Wisconsin missed the 2007 tournament.
2007 champ Michigan State qualified in 2008 and was knocked out in the regional final after winning one game.
2008 champion Boston College didn't make it in 2009.
2009 winner Boston University didn't qualify in 2010.
2010 champion Boston College made it in 2011, but as a No. 1 seed lost to No. 4 Colorado College.
2011's champion was UMD, and the Bulldogs made the tourney in 2012 and lost to BC in the regional final here in Worcester.
2012 national champion Boston College was one and done in 2013.
2013 champ Yale and 2014 winner Union failed to qualify for the tourney in their "title defense" seasons.

History was actually against Providence, and not only did it make the tournament, but it thrived throughout the season.

Leaman says he set the tone with his team right away in the offseason.

"We wanted to leave the guys with the message basically of how hard they are going to have to work this summer," he said. "Then as soon as they got back to campus we put the challenge right away to them ... just to let them know that this is going to be difficult. What we are going into is going to be difficult and it’s unchartered for us and to set the tone. We are fortunate that we have nine seniors on the team and they kind of took that challenge and it made them hungry, so I think that is really the tone for our team this year."

Leaman had a great line when I interviewed him and asked him about going from being the hunter to being the hunted. He noted how difficult it can be to prepare for teams because of how differently they were coming at his squad.

"You get everyone's A-game," he said. "You can't watch tape on teams, because when you watch tape on teams, it wasn't the team you were going to see Friday or Saturday when you played them. You were going to see a much better game out of that team. It forces you to show up every game. It forced us to make sure we were disciplined. I think there was a growth in our team this year because of the challenges."

UMD coach Scott Sandelin called Providence "driven" and "focused" this week, and that certainly appears to be the case. Facing the best everyone can give, the Friars rolled out of the gates and hit the Christmas break at 12-0-3. Providence stumbled a bit after Christmas, going 6-5-1 from Dec. 28 through Jan. 30, but then ripped off ten straight wins heading into last Friday's game against UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals. Lowell got the money in triple overtime, but Providence was deservedly on the No. 1 seed line when regional pairings came out Sunday.

This is a focused, structured team. I am really impressed watching the Friars play, and they pose a lot of challenges for UMD. In some respects, the teams are very much alike. I think they can both play with pace, play a bit heavier game when needed, and both have strong senior classes and are backed by great goaltending.

That's a story in and of itself for this Providence squad. I don't put much stock in preseason polls, and neither should anyone, but it struck me that Providence returned a nine-man senior class for this season off a national title and was rated seventh. In all honesty, it's a defensible vote, because among the losses from last season were a great goaltender in Jon Gillies and a soon-to-be NHL player in Noel Acciari.

But junior goalie Nick Ellis has taken the proverbial ball and run away hiding it.

“Well, the story about Nick Ellis," Leaman says, "is his freshman and sophomore year. That is the real story about Nick Ellis is how he handled being behind Jon Gillies, how he worked so hard every day and how his practices were and his games. I mean Nick was our hardest working player for his freshman and his sophomore years without a doubt and when he got his opportunity, he made the most of it. He’s had a terrific year."

He's shown it this season, with a 1.82 goals against and .935 save percentage. He's been great when his team has needed him. His team has also been of great help, making sure that Ellis can see pucks and doesn't have to worry about contact. Football guys like to talk about linemen giving a quarterback a clean pocket to throw from. To borrow that a bit here, Providence is one of the better teams in the country at keeping the goaltender clean. He can see the puck, which usually means he's going to stop it. And driving the net against Providence can be quite the task. The Friars defend the front exceptionally well.

The other way, I feel like UMD can give Providence fits with its speed and forward depth. I'm not saying it's necessarily a big advantage, but I do think UMD has a slight edge in overall speed. Like in many cases, I feel like UMD's ability to play the game with pace is a huge key. The Bulldogs have shown an ability to grind games out when necessary, but the bread and butter is still pace and puck possession. It's also probably the best chance to draw a strong structure team away from what it does best, and making the Friars uncomfortable, especially in their own zone, could go a long way for UMD.

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