For the first time in 30 years, the Providence College Men’s Hockey team is heading to the Frozen Four. While the other three final teams will take flights or buses back to campus to pack their bags for the finals, the Friars need to drive no more than a mile and a half back to their dormitories.
In what seemed like fate, the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence played host to the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Championship East Region this past weekend. Miami University of Ohio was the top ranked team in this bracket while the Providence College Friars barely squeezed into the post-season as the lowest seed. Out of all the seasons for the city to host this regional tournament, this was the perfect one. While Miami was the odds-on favorite, and a big one at that, there is a reason why Disney is worth millions of dollars; everyone loves a Cinderella tale.
Playing in front of 7,908 hockey fans, the Friars, led by Johnston, Rhode Island’s Noel Acciari, took the ice as the visiting team, being the lower seed, in what really turned out to be a home game. Those who took the 820-mile trip from Ohio to Rhode Island rallied around the Red Hawks band in one corner of the arena while black and grey jerseys and sweatshirts surrounded the rest of the ice. While Miami University came in with momentum, winning 10 of their previous 14 games, the Friars touted their own impressive numbers, going 12-4 this season while playing in their own city.
Providence has one of the best goalies in the tournament, Jon Gilles, who allowed an average of fewer than 2 goals per contest in the regular season. For the Red Hawks to win this game on the road, they were going to have to get to Gilles early and make the Friars play from behind. The first goal for Miami came early, only four minutes into the contest. The two teams traded goals the rest of the period and went into the intermission tied at two a piece.
What happened in the next 40-minutes of hockey was some of the most interesting I’ve seen in a long time. Providence came out hitting everyone in sight in the second period. The Red Hawks had no answer to the physical play, getting bullied at every loose puck. It was evident that Miami was not ready for this style of play as they started making bad passes and turned the puck over to avoid getting hit. The result for Providence was four straight goals and a 6-2 lead heading into the final period. Not only did they outscore the top seed by 4 during those 20 minutes, but they also out shot them 18-7. The crowd never sat down during the entire period and there were moments when they were giving standing ovation for big hits and timely turnovers to go along with the four goal celebrations.
Up by four goals with stand out Jon Gilles in net should be more than enough to coast through the next period, right? The first eight minutes went according to plan and then Miami University Head Coach Enricio Blasi made one of the riskiest moves in recent memory by pulling his goalie with 12 minutes remaining in the game to create a 6 on 5 advantage with the extra man.
It worked almost perfectly as his team scored with 9:30, 5:46 and 1:33 remaining to close the gap on the scoreboard to 6-5. Providence spent the majority of this time trying to score on the empty net from all over the ice. The Red Hawks had taken them out of their game plan. No longer would they carry the puck and try to get into the offensive zone, Providence instead would get an opening and fire at the net form anywhere on the ice. With shots piling up and goals following, Miami University was on the verge of one of the most amazing comebacks in NCAA history.
With less than a minute to go, Acciari fired the puck across the ice at the empty net in what appeared to be an easy goal without opposition. Then out of nowhere Red Hawk Louis Belpedio dove across the ice to knock the puck of the course and sent it behind the net. In the process he went crashing into the boards, risking his body to save the empty net goal.
Over seven thousand fans, all on their feet, held a collective gasp as the Red Hawks carried the puck back towards Gilles. A slap shot from Anthony Louis led to a rebound right in front of the goal crease. With the goaltender on the opposite post, Miami’s Matthew Caito stood in front with the wide open net, and just as his stick connected to the puck, a Friar’s stick met his and knocked the puck to the far boards. Providence’s Brandon Tanev got the rebound and fired it in Miami’s empty net for the 7-5 lead and the victory. The Red Hawks had come inches away from tying the contest.
Providence had beaten the top seed at the Dunkin Donuts Center, less than two miles from their campus. With the crowd screaming in joy, the Friars met in Gilles crease to celebrate. They had done what the hockey world said they could not, and they did it with their friends, classmates and alumni watching in the stands.
It’s similar to the story Miracle, when the United States beat the Soviet Union in Lake Placid, New York in the semifinals. They went on to win the gold medal against Finland in a game that no one ever talks about. The game against Denver, who had just defeated Boston College earlier that day, was a bonus for the Friars. When fans look back on the playoffs, it will be this game against Miami that they remember. The dominate second period, Miami pulling their goalie for twelve minutes, the near comeback and the outcome, it will all be talked about in Providence for years to come.
With the crowd on their side once again, Providence College shocked college hockey fans, outside of Rhode Island, by beating the 2nd-seeded Denver Pioneers 4-1 on Sunday afternoon to head to the Frozen Four for the first time in 30 years. Tied at one in the third period, Friars Tom Parisi netted back-to-back power goals to seal the victory, while Gilles was solid as ever between the pipes.
Playing eight miles away from his hometown, Johnston’s Noel Acciari scored a goal in the second period and was named the Most Outstanding Player in the East Region playoffs. His Friars will now play the University of Nebraska-Omaha on Thursday, April 9th, at the TD Garden in Boston. The game will also air live on ESPN 2.
The Friars defeated the 1st and 2nd seeds in their region and they had done it right up the street from where they take classes. Their offense was on fire, averaging 5.5 goals per game this weekend, and this is a team who had scored more than five goals in a regular season game only twice in their 37 contests. It was the right time for the scorers to get hot.
There is a reason why they call it a home ice advantage in this sport, and the Friars proved that to be true. Instead of sleeping in a hotel room on the road, forced to eat room service or take out, they were able to sleep in their own beds and make their own breakfast and lunch that day. The players were able to continue their normal game-day routine and drive less than five minutes up the road to get dressed in the locker room. Would the Friars have won the region if they played in the New Hampshire bracket? That is an irrelevant discussion now because Cinderella had her date with destiny this weekend, and it went so well they now have a second date in Boston.
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