Providence, RI -- When the clock struck zero at the Dunkin Donuts Center on Sunday evening, the Providence College hockey program was heading back to the Frozen Four for the first time since 1985 and for just the fourth time in school history.
Tom Parisi's power play goal with 5:01 left gave the Friars a 2-1 edge before Brandon Tanev and Kevin Rooney tacked on empty net tallies for the 4-1 final.
The Friars will face Nebraska-Omaha, the Midwest Regional Champion, in the Frozen Four's first semifinal on Thursday, April 9 at the TD Garden in Boston, Mass. PC will be chasing the school's first ever national championship in men's hockey.
Power play success
It's no secret that the power play hasn't always been an area of strength for the Friars this season, but two man advantage tallies propelled Providence to a berth in the Frozen Four.
It wasn't always pretty, but in a numbers business, it doesn't matter how it looks as long as the puck finds its way into the back of the net.
On Noel Acciari's second period power play goal, much of the first part of the sequence was spent retrieving pucks after Denver stopped the Friars at the blue line. On the five minute power play that Parisi scored on, Leaman had to call a timeout shortly prior to the goal to calm his troops down.
"I thought we were rattled a little bit. I thought we just had to calm down and execute," said Leaman of why he called timeout.
Parisi's game-winning goal came on a five-minute major assessed to Joey LaLeggia. Denver's top player was whistled for contact-to-the-head elbowing. It's a great initiative to try to eliminate head shots and limit the longterm negative health impacts that playing in a contact sport can have on athletes.
However, when a player comes through the neutral zone with his head down and slouched over, it's a little baffling to call that a five-minute major. It is the equivalent to calling it a ball instead of a strike if a shorter batter leans down to try to make a high strike appear high.
"I don't know how to coach any different than our players always attacking. It cost us a five-minute major. I guess you're supposed to back off and let a guy come attack you instead of angling that puck like I've taught them. Joey LaLeggia did everything I asked of him on that play, but unfortunately it was head hunting," said a visibly disappointed Denver coach Jim Montgomery.
Gillies in the zone
Junior Jon Gillies is one of the best goaltenders in the country when he's on. On Sunday afternoon, the Calgary Flames prospect was in the zone. He seemingly ate up every shot or pushed every rebound rebound far into the corner. He was seeing and following pucks right into his big frame and squaring up to shooters to be in position on the few he didn't see.
"He's an extremely talented goalie. He's really square to pucks. Gillies was there to make the save. He wasn't giving up rebounds today," credited Montgomery.
The South Portland, Maine native made 23 saves, only allowing one fluky bounce to get past him. Gillies was simply a game changer on Sunday afternoon.
"Johnny really got us through that first period," said Leaman. "I knew Johnny had to be our best player and he was our best player. I told him that this morning and put a little pressure on him."
If Providence is to have success in the Frozen Four, that statement will likely have to ring true come two weekends from now in Boston.
Gillies was the difference maker, but the entire team's defensive effort was notable on Sunday evening from the forwards on down.
"They're everything," said Gillies of his teammates in front of him. "It starts with Noel [Acciari] and Ross [Mauermann] up front and Tom [Parisi] and Johnny Gilmour on back. They set the tone for our forward group and "D" corps. Noel and Ross block shots all over the place. That's contagious. John and Tom both have great feet and are able to close time and space on the rush and keep tight gaps. Closing time and space and keeping opponents to the outside are what we focus on," added Gillies.
Always frankly honest, Leaman admitted his forwards didn't come out with the tenacity he'd like on the forecheck, but from the second period on, PC's forwards really disrupted the Denver flow for the most part.
The speed of the Friars, led by players like Ross Mauermann, Trevor Mingoia, Tanev and Acciari, resulted in DU's defensemen having more difficulty jumping into the offense and gaining meaningful opportunities.
"I don't think we did a good job of that early in the game. In between periods we talked about going through them. I thought on the power play we did a decent job of eliminating them," said Leaman.
The defensemen, led by John Gilmour and Tom Parisi, did a terrific job of forcing Denver to the perimeter and owning the center of the ice.
"One of our goals going into the game was limiting time and space. I thought our defense as a unit, our forwards as well, we really shut down time and space. We didn't let them skate around the zone too much," said Parisi.
"Give Providence credit. We didn't get to the net front. They did a great job of blocking out and not letting us get there. They make it hard on you," said Montgomery.
On one second period penalty killing sequence, Josh Monk made two real nice coverage plays, using a good stick to poke check and force the puck out of the zone. Jake Walman was solid on gap control and Anthony Florentino used his physicality to knock DU players away from the goal mouth.
It wasn't just the defensive end that saw the PC blue liners excel in. Parisi had the game-winner and Walman accounted for three assists. Leaman has stressed the importance of his defensemen pitching in offensively all season long and Sunday was no different.
"He's a transition defenseman. He's got a terrific stick. His first step can blow by just about anybody. He's always got his head up. He can make plays," said Leaman of Walman.
There was no shortage of criticism and discussion when Providence backed into the national tournament on the final night of the conference championship weekend and was given a quasi home game just down the street from campus.
The Friars took advantage of the card they were dealt and parlayed it into a berth in the Frozen Four. Providence deserves all the credit in the world because no matter where the games are, a team still has to win the games. Nonetheless, Leaman didn't hold back in praising Brown for hosting and his hometown fans for coming out to support the local entrant.
"We have to thank Brown University for hosting. Without them hosting this regional, I think we wouldn't be playing here. We'd be playing anywhere else. It's sometimes funny how your crosstown rival can sometimes be your best friend," said Leaman.
"This is a special hockey state. Hockey is big in this state. We were happy to come through when we got the opportunity to play in front of our fans," Leaman added.
There should be little doubt that Leaman is one of the best program builders in college hockey. He led Union College to its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance at the Division I level and laid the groundwork for the program's NCAA Championship last season.
Now, he's at Providence, and he's responsible for the first ever back-to-back appearances in the national tournament at the school. The 2014-15 team has won just one less game than the Friar program did in a three-year span immediately preceding Leaman's arrival.
"You don't get to this level by a fluke. You get to it by a lot of support. This isn't a coach getting here, not a team getting here. It's a lot of people behind the scenes that help you get there," said Leaman.
Leaman deflected praise away from himself in the post-game press conference, but Providence fans everywhere should be thanking their lucky stars that AD Bob Driscoll and the rest of the administration lured the 42 year-old away from Union almost four years ago.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior, high school and prep hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.