It’s been more than 10 years since the Providence men’s hockey team has appeared in the NCAA Tournament — its last visit was in 2001.
On Friday, the Friars (21-10-6) return as the No. 3 seed against No. 2 Quinnipiac (24-9-6) at 5:30 p.m. in the East Regional at Webster Bank Arena.
For coach Nate Leaman, there is more at stake during their trip to Bridgeport, Conn., than a cushy accolade in the program’s record book.
For the Friars, who were eliminated from the Hockey East tourney with a 3-1 loss to New Hampshire in the semifinals, it’s not enough just to ‘‘be’’ at the NCAA Tournament.
“We wanted to take the attitude we’re not coming just to play, we’re coming to win,” Leaman said Thursday. “That’s been our focus this week in practice, and I really liked the week we had in practice. I think that message got across to the guys.”
That message hasn’t been lost on sophomore goaltender Jon Gillies, whose .929 save percentage ranked third in Hockey East.
“It’s special,” Gillies said. “And it’s easy to get caught up in everything, but the realization is these opportunities don’t come around often and we can’t take anything for granted.
“We came here believing we can win a trophy and that we can move on to the Frozen Four. We’ve earned this spot and we belong here, and we are going to take it one shift at a time and see where it takes us.”
Providence faces a difficult matchup in Quinnipiac, which is in the tournament for a second consecutive season after falling to Yale, 4-0, in last year’s championship.
Quinnipiac also stumbled in its conference tournament, falling to Colgate, 3-2, in double overtime in the ECAC semis.
Providence will have its work cut out against the Bobcats and their dynamic set of forwards. The Quinnipiac offense has been consistently strong all season, ranking fourth nationally with an average of 3.62 goals per game.
There’s the top line of twins Kellen and Connor Jones (both 5 feet 9 inches), and freshman Sam Anas (5-8), who excel on the rush. While they may be small in stature, they’ve produced 110 points (49 goals, 61 assists) as a line in 33 games.
Then there’s the bruising line of power wingers Bryce Van Brabant (6-3) and Jordan Samuels-Thomas (6-4), centered by Corey Hibbeler.
“They have a good set of forwards — forwards that are dynamic in different areas,” Leaman said. “They have guys that are good and big in the offensive zone, and two or three guys that are fast and quick and play good in the one-on-one game on the rush. The goal is shutting down those forwards.”
Earlier this season, Providence and Quinnipiac skated to a 3-3 tie in Hamden, Conn. Gillies made a season-high 45 saves. The teams have never met in the postseason, and Friday is just their sixth meeting.
Last year, Quinnipiac beat Providence, 2-0.
“I think we just have to be aware,” Gillies said. “We respect the fact that they’re a highly skilled group up front. They’re very deep and their top two lines are incredibly skilled. While we know and respect that, we have faith in our D corps, and our forwards helping out and our systems to know we can keep up and contain them. Obviously, they’re going to get chances and create plays, and I’ve got to be there to make the saves.”
The Friars also have their own set of offensive weapons, starting with junior forward Ross Mauermann, who leads the team with 19 goals and 15 assists for 34 points.
Leaman also has had success with the new line of wingers Brandon Tanev and Derek Army and center Noel Acciari. They have combined for 21 points (eight goals) in the last eight games.
While the offense generated just one goal in the loss to UNH, Gillies said the Friars quickly put that game in the rear-view mirror.
After watching Saturday’s Hockey East final, the Friars gathered for the NCAA selection show Sunday, and wasted little time hitting the ice for a practice Sunday afternoon.
“Against UNH, we got away from our own game,” Gillies said. “We just stayed to the perimeter, we didn’t finish our hits, and didn’t play detail-oriented hockey. We just didn’t execute. The work ethic was there but the execution and follow-through wasn’t.
“We’ve focused on Quinnipiac but also have focused on details on our game to make sure everyone is on the same page.”