Providence College Hockey Set to End League's Longest Garden Drought

Al DanielCorrespondent IIMarch 15, 2012

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 20:  The outside of the TD Garden before the Boston Bruins take on the Toronto Maple Leafs on October 20, 2011 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

Ray Bourque has played a meaningful, competitive hockey game at Boston’s premier indoor sports venue more recently than Providence College has.

The Friars last appearance in a Hockey East semifinal and/or final occurred on the weekend of March 16-17, 2001, one week before Bourque made his memorable return to the artist then known as the Fleet Center with the Colorado Avalanche.

In the intervening decade, each of PC’s nine Hockey East cohabitants has earned at least one passport to the Fleet Center/TD Banknorth Garden/TD Garden. All except Merrimack have put in multiple conference semifinal appearances and all except UMass-Lowell have gone to at least one NCAA tournament.

Since 2001, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have each made two gubernatorial changes while PC men’s hockey and its flagship basketball counterpart have each made two coaching changes. All four of New England’s major professional sports teams have splashed a championship drought, and then some.

Before this season, the Friars had not so much as played a postseason game since future Buffalo Sabre Nathan Gerbe scored on a penalty shot to catapult Boston College into a furious championship run in 2008. They had not won a postseason game since taking the first of three quarterfinal bouts from Boston University in 2005.

And so on and so on and so on.

But all of those acrid anecdotes are finished glowering at Friar Puck and its long-suffering followers. One day before the 11-year anniversary of the program’s last twirl on Causeway Street, a 5-3 title game loss to BC, the same two schools will cross paths again in Friday’s 5 p.m. semifinal tilt.

Although Providence is the only unranked team in the Hockey East final four and dealing with a No. 1-slotted adversary that ran up a cumulative 14-1 score in a three-game sweep of their regular-season series, the program’s progress is already ahead of schedule.

The nadir of PC hockey’s modern era began amidst the celebration of its circuit’s silver anniversary season in 2008-09.

This was the very program whose godfather, Lou Lamoriello, virtually piloted the revolutionary secession from the ECAC in the mid-1980's and who won the new league’s inaugural championship in 1985. And it was the program bearing the distinction of reaching the postseason in each of Hockey East’s first 24 seasons of existence.

Yet in the 25th campaign, the Friars finished in a virtual tie for last place with Merrimack, winning one fewer game than the Warriors and accruing the league’s only triple-digit count in the goals-against column.

When the subsequent two seasons brought more of the same, former team captain and sixth-year head coach Tim Army agreed to terminate his tenure, canceling the final two seasons on his contract. He was succeeded by Union College program architect and reigning Spencer Penrose Award winner Nate Leaman.

Realistically speaking, the most and the least “Friar Fanatics” could have asked out of Leaman’s first season was something reminiscent of Claude Julien’s inaugural campaign behind the Bruins bench. A simple return to the postseason after a three-year absence would have sufficed.

A six-win and eight-point improvement in 2010-11 allowed the Friars to clinch seventh place by default, even while they tumbled through the final three weeks of the regular season on a six-game winless streak and four-game losing skid.

But because that was not enough for Leaman or his pupils, particularly his long-unfulfilled senior class, Providence made a multitude of head-turning ripples in last weekend’s best-of-three quarterfinal.

In the full, six-year duration of Army’s coaching reign, the Friars collected three goals over a span of six Hockey East playoff games. Leaman’s first installment matched that output before the 40-minute mark of Game 1 versus the host UMass-Lowell last Thursday, ultimately claiming a 5-3 decision at the Tsongas Center.

Dating seven years back to the aforementioned Game 1 win over BU, Providence brooked five shutouts in eight unanswered playoff losses, including two from the Terriers that effectively ended Paul Pooley’s hold of the helm.

In Sunday’s rubber game versus Lowell, senior goaltender Alex Beaudry―first on the Friars career-saves list―repelled all 29 shots faced. The 1-0 upshot gave the team its first postseason shutout victory in 20 years and first semifinal berth in 11 years.

As it happens, Friday shall be the exact 11-year anniversary of PC’s last Hockey East semifinal game and win. Comparable results are less likely this time around, but Friar Fanatics will have doubtlessly rinsed out the residual vinegar from a protracted spell of irrelevance and a lengthy hiatus from the hub of New England rinks.