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Surging Friars Have Sights on Hockey East Tournament Bye

Anthony Florentino
Providence senior defenseman Anthony Florentino
Matt Dewkett/SB Nation

Nate Leaman and his staff had to replace 10 players from last year’s team, including many who played key roles in the Friars winning their first NCAA Championship in school history in 2015.

Seven of the top 10 scorers and the starting goaltender from the 2015-16 season were gone. So it should come as no surprise that the first half of this season came with ups and downs.

However, fortunes have turned for Leaman’s team. Following Saturday’s 5-3 win over Maine, Providence moved into a tie for fifth place in the Hockey East Standings. It was the seventh consecutive win for the Friars who are 11-2-1 over their last 14 after starting 5-6-2.

“We’re scoring. In all seven wins we’ve gotten three or more goals. That’s been a big difference. In our first half we were 7-1-1 when we scored three goals or more,” Leaman said. “We’re scoring a little better and more consistently which has been the biggest difference.”

Now 16-8-4, Providence finds itself in eighth in the Pairwise Rankings entering Wednesday’s game at the XL Center in Hartford against UConn. Another reason for the renewed good fortunes has been the improved goaltending of sophomore Hayden Hawkey who has played every minute this season.

In his first season as the full-time starter, the 2014 sixth round pick of the Montreal Canadiens has done a better job of controlling rebounds and not allowing soft goals as the season has progressed.

The Parker, Colo. native had a .905 save percentage through the first 21 games of the season. Over the last seven games, his save percentage is .927.

What many people forget is Hawkey had nearly two years off before this season. He suffered a gruesome lower body injury with the Omaha Lancers in his final season of junior hockey then spent much of last year on the bench in back of Nick Ellis, who is now with the Edmonton Oilers’ organization.

The defense, led by junior Jake Walman, has also improved immensely since the beginning of the season. The Friars are doing a good job gapping and keeping possession.

Walman, a St. Louis Blues prospect, is perhaps the best puck-possession defenseman in college hockey outside of Boston University’s Charlie McAvoy. On Saturday against Maine, Walman was able to break the puck out of his own zone, impact zone entries at the attacking end and generate possession for his team.

The turnaround should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Leaman is arguably the best coach in college hockey and has consistently brought in players who can execute his system.

There were plenty of signs in the first half pointing towards future success. Providence would play like one of the best teams in the country for one period, but couldn’t put it all together for a full 60 minutes. A young team was learning to play college hockey and there were players thrown into roles they were unfamiliar with until this season.

Providence has a pair against UConn Wednesday and Friday before a trip to face Notre Dame for a series in South Bend. The Friars finish the regular season with a home-and-home against Massachusetts.

If the Friars continue playing like they have the past seven games, there is little doubt they will be off the first weekend in March as the bottom eight teams in the league battle it out in the first round.

“This time of year you’re just looking for wins. We’re playing as five. We’re playing hard. A lot of our skill guys are blocking shots,” said senior defenseman Anthony Florentino, the Buffalo Sabres prospect who had the first hat trick of his hockey career Saturday night.