Gritty Providence Has What It Takes To Make Noise In Hockey East, NCAA

The Friars are hockey’s answer to the ancient Greek city-state Sparta: they’re not flashy, but they are physical and never quit. For all the talk about UMass and Northeastern, you can’t handicap the Hockey East playoffs without inserting Providence into the equation. The Friars don’t have the star power of the other two, but they are a very tough out.

Sixth-year coach Nate Leaman has once again bent this team to his will: 30-second shifts, six shot blockers on the ice at all times and a team prepared to grind in the dirty areas ALL NIGHT LONG. This was Leaman’s formula when he won the 2015 NCAA championship game on Boston Garden ice.

To the dismay of some of Leaman’s skill players, Friar forwards might only get one or two brief puck touches per shift—receive a pass, throw the puck into the attacking zone and then sprint toward a collision behind the net. But after a frustrating January that saw the team only win four out of eight games, with its power play sputtering impotently, Providence managed to turn it around. Every Friar has bought into Leaman’s selfless system, and the club is peaking with a six-game unbeaten streak to end the season, including the team’s first win over Boston College of the campaign in the finale. As luck would have it, the Friars host BC in the quarterfinals. 

The BC game had additional significance for the Friars, as their previously dormant power play finally got untracked, scoring two goals in three attempts. If Providence could stay above 20 percent with the man up throughout the postseason, the No. 8 Friars will be national contenders once again. Against the Eagles, the PC power play inexplicably moved the puck around like the old Soviet Red Army. Considering the fact that it doesn’t generate a ton of offense at even strength, PC’s power play becomes a vital stat.

Players to Watch

Finnish captain Kasper Bjorkqvist is a legit scorer, leading the Friars with 14 goals. He is often the triggerman for freshman Jake Dugan’s feathery passes. Dugan (a Vegas NHL Prospect) is at or near the top of all offensive categories for Hockey East freshmen.

Another frosh that has learned to thrive in Division I under Leaman is Connecticut native Tyce Thompson. The undrafted winger has scored in five of his last six games, including an unscreened 25’ wrist shot that beat BC’s Joe Wall cleanly, no easy feat. For his efforts, Tyce was named HE Rookie of the Week for the second time. He’s spent most of his hockey life relegated to the shadows created by his dad Brent, who played six seasons in the NHL, and older brother Tage, who starred at UConn before making the jump to the pros. Tyce is now making his own mark at Providence, with the right coach and the right team, and is clearly a man to watch this postseason.  

Leaman’s favorite player, by far, is junior defenseman Jacob Bryson, who also wears the captain’s “C” for the Friars. He is another one of those elite skating, puck-moving, undersized defensemen who are impacting hockey at the highest levels in today’s game. Providence hockey observers are unanimous in their praise of Bryson, insisting that he belongs in the All-Hockey East award discussions. Once again, in the year of the defenseman, Bryson has made choosing an All-American team very difficult at the D position. 

Most believe this is the junior blue-liner’s curtain call in college hockey, which could be an extended one. Bryson’s skills are perfectly suited for postseason success: an immaculate skater, flawless with the puck on breakouts, always finding the tape of his streaking forwards. 

Finally, the Friars have the elite goaltending that can get them to the HE championship game and beyond. Hayden Hawkey (a candidate for FloHockey’s all-name team?) is a 6-foot-2 puck vacuum that clearly has pro potential. His goals against average is under 2.00, and his save percentage is above .920, both winning numbers. Look for the Friars to dismiss BC, and gas up the bus for Boston Garden. Leaman’s faceless Spartans may not be sexy, but they are the one team no one wants to play.

Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.

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