No. 5 New Hampshire (18-9-7 overall, 13-8-6 Hockey East) at No. 4 Providence (15-12-7 overall, 13-8-6 Hockey East)
Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Schneider Arena, Providence, RI
For the second consecutive season New Hampshire will be on the road for the Hockey East Quarterfinals. This year it is to face a resurgent Providence program with one of the best young goaltenders in the country.
The Wildcats got off to one of the hottest starts in Division I, but the play in the second half didn't live up to the months of the first half. Part of that was sophomore goaltender Casey DeSmith not continuing the miraculous numbers he had in net for October and November. Another reason was UNH generally didn't look like the same team.
Wildcats have edge up front
New Hampshire's top five forwards possess more of an offensive threat than Providence's top players up front. UNH Junior Kevin Goumas had 10 goals and 28 assists in the regular season. Seniors Austin Block (14) and John Henrion (13) and sophomore Grayson Downing (13) led the Wildcats in goal scoring. Providence coach Nate Leaman spoke of the group of skilled players UNH has. "They have a very good power player, a lot of pluses, they have a lot of weapons. Overall they were a very good offensive team."
One other major advantage the Wildcats have is the ability of their defensemen to create offense. Sophomore Trevor van Riemsdyk had seven goals and 22 assists while junior Kevin Knodel pumped in 10 goals. UNH coach Dick Umile certainly recognizes the important role his defenders play in the offense. Earlier this week Umile noted, "Those guys have been scoring and helping us this season. Eric is having a terrific season. He can get into the rush with Trevor, and having Trevor out there is like having another forward on the ice. He is a clever player and likes to get into the offense. There is no doubt they have added offense to our team". Leaman talked about the need for the Friars to minimize the impact of UNH's offensive blue liners. "The goal would be making sure that we take away their defensemen when in the offensive zone," he said.
One issue to watch for in this series is the Wildcats' trouble scoring goals away from the Whittemore Center. UNH averaged 2.71 goals per game away from Durham, a full goal per game less than on home ice.
Junior Derek Army and sophomore Ross Mauermann led the way for the Friars offense with 23 points each. Sophomore Stefan Demopoulos has had two different hand injuries this season, but has eight points in his last eight games after returning from injury. Freshmen Mark Jankowski and Paul de Jersey are very talented, but young and still adjusting to the college game. Providence is a very good skating team, one that will always go hard on the forecheck.
Tight defensive games
When these two teams got together in the regular season, the games were all decided by one goal or less. The first two games were higher scoring numbers, but the last game at Schneider Arena was a tightly played defensive game with Providence scoring a goal late to win 1-0.
UNH's defense is obviously known more for its offensive ability, but the Wildcats can play some defense as well. Freshman Brett Pesce is not flashy, but plays a very true game and makes few mistakes for a rookie. The Tarrytown, NY native will probably hear his name called in this summer's NHL Entry Draft.
Providence will most likely try to bottle up the skilled UNH forwards and eliminate the ability to move around on the smaller ice sheet. PC Senior Alex Velischek, a Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick, is +17 on the season. Freshmen Jon Gilmour and Tom Parisi have both gotten better as the season has gone along. Also, keep an eye on junior Steven Shamanski as he has very good vision up ice.
PC senior captain Kyle Murphy, a Notre Dame transfer, is one of the best defensive forwards in the league. He finished the season +11. Coach Leaman spoke of Murphy's role as a captain. "Kyle Murphy has been a tremendous player for us. He was made captain and had never played a game with us, pretty rare in hockey."
This series will feature two of the best goaltenders in the league. UNH Sophomore Casey DeSmith and Providence freshman Jon Gillies can both steal games for their respective teams.
DeSmith started out the season on fire. His save percentage got as high as .961 in November after 10 games. Currently at .924, it is still a respectable number, but not what it was. If the Wildcats are going to advance in the post-season, his play needs to be more consistent and more in line with his October and November play. Coach Leaman expressed concern in having to go against a goalie like DeSmith.
PC's Gillies has been consistently sharp all season. He has shown poise and the ability to bounce back from a tough game all season. After his statistically worst game of the season at UMass, he came back the next night and pitched a shutout at home against the Minutemen. Leaman realizes his goaltender will have a big impact on the outcome this weekend. "There's not much that rattles Jon. He's been considerably consistent for a freshman. Even when he has not had his 'A' game he has found ways to win the game as a freshman, and he can really take a mental edge," said Leaman.
On the flip side, Umile knows how difficult it will be for his team to get the puck into the back of the net against Providence. "There is great goaltending in this league, and we are going to see that in Gillies this weekend. We are going to need to find ways to get the puck past him."
Keys to the Series
UNH needs to take advantage of their weapons up front. Henrion, Downing, Goumas and Block need to be on their best play to have a chance to beat Gillies.
Providence went 0 for 10 last Saturday night against Lowell with a regular season championship on the line. The power play needs to be better this weekend, especially with their limited options offensively compared to UNH.
Providence went 2-0-1 against UNH during the regular season. The Friars are a very young team overall. Many of their best players are underclassmen. UNH could throw some doubt into the Friars with an early start. PC needs to avoid the nerves and stay calm.
Stating the obvious, DeSmith and Gillies are two of the best goaltenders in the league. Whoever plays consistenly better this weekend will probably win the series for his team.
Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.