icehockey-men-d1 flag

Mark Divver | The Providence Journal | March 23, 2017

Providence relishing the role of underdog in NCAA tourney

  Providence is set to take on No. 2-ranked Harvard this Friday.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — They are rested, ready and relishing their role as underdogs.

Providence is in a good place as it prepares to face Harvard in the opener of the NCAA tournament East Regional on Friday afternoon.

View the men's ice hockey championship bracket

And why wouldn't it be? Playing a couple of miles from campus at the Dunkin' Donuts Center, a venue that is fast becoming their home away from home in the postseason, the Friars are determined to prove the doubters wrong.

"I think everyone in our room would say the same thing: We love being the underdog," sophomore goalie Hayden Hawkey said. "Everyone is kind of sleeping on us right now. That's big for us. We know what we've got in the room. That's all that matters for us."

High-scoring Harvard is a clear favorite. The Crimson are riding a 15-0-1 streak. They haven't lost a game in two months.

But it's not like the Friars haven't been cast as underdogs before.

It was only two years ago that PC pulled off an upset for the ages, taking home its first national championship by defeating heavily favored Boston University and NHL superstar-in-training Jack Eichel.

That title run started with a pair of Friar victories in the East Regional at The Dunk. PC was the fourth seed then, just as it is now. Eleven players from 2015 are still around.

A PC upset on Friday would add a great chapter to the long history of the NCAA tournament in Providence. Starting in 1965, the city has hosted six Final Fours and one Frozen Four (the brand name that came into use in 1999), as well as many regionals. Last time around, Providence had the highest two-day attendence of any of the four regional sites.

With a national-championship banner in the rafters at Schneider Arena and four straight trips to the NCAA tournament, the Friars have joined college hockey's elite under coach Nate Leaman.

The only schools with more wins than PC's 97 over the last four seasons are North Dakota (109), Denver (108), Quinnipiac (102) and Lowell (98). That's some fast company.

"If you look at the big picture, [four straight trips to the tournament] means we have a program, we don't have a team," Leaman said.

"It's so tough to get to this spot. It doesn't get old. It's too much of a struggle to get to this point. You love these moments."

With 10 freshmen on the roster this season, Leaman and his staff — associate head coach Scott Borek, assistant coach Kris Mayotte and volunteer assistant Jim Tortorella — have done a masterful job.

How far have the Friars come? In mid-January, they were this close to plummeting into the Hockey East basement.

Following a 4-3 defeat on Jan. 13 in which they outshot Vermont 33-14, the Friars and Catamounts were tied going into the third period the next night. A loss would have left PC in 12th place with a 1-7-2 league record. Instead, the Friars dug deep for three third-period goals and a 4-1 win.

They didn't know it at the time, but they were on their way.

The following Friday night at Lowell, PC fell behind by two in the first nine minutes. But the Friars hung in and rallied for a 4-3 win.

"The guys didn't panic, they just kept playing. We got some breaks because we didn't react to being down," Tortorella said.

PC ripped off nine wins in a row and finished the regular season on a 13-1-1 tear. From the depths of the standings, it ended up only two points out of first place in Hockey East.

The coaching staff's patience paid off.

"Take it one game at a time. That's what we did. What made us good is we were patient. We coached patient in the first half. As a staff, we understood that this was a young group and there were going to be some bumps in the road," Leaman said.

"It's really hard to be patient. Coaches are [losing their jobs]," he said, referring to recent firings and resignations in the Division I coaching ranks. "It's tough to remember that it's a process. You've got to remind yourself every day. That's why I have a good staff."

MORE: Previewing the tournament

The Friars' success can't be taken for granted.

Leaman's name comes up nearly every time a coach — NHL to NCAA — is rumored to be on the hot seat or loses his job. It's only a matter of time before he moves on to bigger things.

But not just yet.

And as long as he's there, there is every reason to believe that this golden age of Friar hockey will continue to play out right in front of us.

This article is written by Mark Divver from The Providence Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.