LOWELL, Mass. — Led by Jon Gillies’ 31 saves, Providence beat Massachusetts-Lowell 3-0 on Friday to move into a tie with Lowell for first place in Hockey East. The Friars and River Hawks conclude the season Saturday night in Providence with the regular-season title on the line. The winner of the game would win the title outright, while a tie would leave both teams with a share a title.
Providence opened Friday’s scoring 12:50 into the first when Ross Mauermann buried a rebound generated by a Paul de Jersey shot. The Friars made it 2-0 on another rebound goal 6:16 into the second, this time with Kevin Hart following up a Mark Jankowski shot. The lead hit 3-0 on a third-period power play, when a Tim Schaller drive to the net led to a loose puck that Tom Parisi buried.
What I saw
-The Friars blocked 19 shots and played solid team defense all night. Lowell likes to take shots from the point and crash the net for tips and rebounds, but the Friars did a great job of taking those point shots away by clogging shooting lanes. Myles Harvey, who returned to the lineup after missing five games due to injury, led the way with five blocks, including two on a 5-on-3 penalty kill. The River Hawks did get some quality chances — by my count, they had 11 shots on goal from the grade-A area — but Gillies made the initial saves and his defense did a good job clearing rebounds.
-Connor Hellebuyck gave up two juicy rebounds on Providence’s first two goals, which is very uncharacteristic for him. He entered Friday with a 13-0-0 record and .957 save percentage over his last 13 starts, and a big reason for that success has been his rebound control. The freshman has been great at either not allowing rebounds, or directing them toward his defensemen when he does. On both goals Friday, though, the rebounds ended up right in the slot, and the goal-scorers were able to get to them before any River Hawk could. The third goal also came off a rebound, but that was a little different since it came off a stuff attempt at the side of the net.
What I thought
-I’m heading to Providence tomorrow, and I think this might be the most excited I’ve ever been for a regular-season game. It is fantastic for Hockey East to have two non-Big Four teams playing in a winner-take-all game for the regular-season title. To recap, no one other than Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire or Maine has ever won even a share of the regular-season title. No matter what, that will change tomorrow night. Then you add in the fact that the game features two second-year coaches who took over programs that had missed the playoffs the season before they arrived. Oh, and Lowell is still competing for a one-seed in NCAAs, while Providence is fighting for its NCAA life. The regular-season title is always important, regardless of who wins it. But the change of scenery makes this year’s feel even more important — both for the teams involved and for the league as a whole.
-Jon Gillies has a legitimate case for Hockey East Player of the Year. A couple weeks ago, I wrote that he deserved to be mentioned, but at that point I had him on the outside looking in. Since then, he’s gone 4-1-0 with a .948 save percentage to help elevate the Friars into a first-place tie. In that same time, Mike Collins and Johnny Gaudreau have both cooled off. There’s still one night left in the season, and that one night will certainly have an effect on not just Player of the Year, but on every award. Still, if Gillies ends on a high note, and especially if Providence wins the game and title, he has to be considered a serious contender, and arguably even the favorite.
What they said
-Providence coach Nate Leaman on being tied for first: “Right now it’s about playing good hockey at the end of the season. We haven’t looked at the standings at all, and we’re not going to. That’s what I told the guys. We know it’s going to be a much tougher game tomorrow. I could tell their coaching staff wasn’t happy with the way they played. We’re going to have to come back with a better effort tomorrow. That’s all our focus has to be, and that’s all our focus is going to be. It’s going to be a real good game.”
-Leaman on Gillies: “I think Jon likes big games. I really think the two years in the USHL were big for Jon. He got to carry the mail the second year there. I just think he likes big games. He’s very calm. He’s very composed. There’s nothing that really rattles him. Because of that, he’s just not too high, not too low all the time. He just kind of does his job.”
-Lowell coach Norm Bazin on still having a chance to win the regular-season title: “At this point I just want to be playing our best hockey heading into the playoffs, and that wasn’t it. That wasn’t it. We’ve played some very good hockey as of late, but that wasn’t one of our best efforts of the year. I thought we lacked a little battle mentality. We’ll need to get better tomorrow.”
What else you should know
-Providence moved up to 18th in the Pairwise with the win, while Lowell dropped to seventh with the loss.