BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Providence coach Nate Leaman could hardly believe the puck did not cross the goal line.
The Friars were trailing by a goal late in the first period, and Union goalie Colin Stevens was scrambling on the ice to find his stick as Mark Jankowski and Conor MacPhee poked feverishly at the puck.
Union defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere protected the goal line and withstood the fire while Stevens recovered and made three remarkable saves until the puck was cleared.
It was a stunning sequence, and it foreshadowed the Friars’ offensive struggles that followed.
Providence broke through in the third period when Nick Saracino scored to pull the Friars within one, but Union’s effort never wavered.
And less than 80 seconds later, Matt Hatch delivered the dagger with 3:47 to go, as Union defeated Providence, 3-1, Saturday in the East Regional final at Webster Bank Arena.
The top-ranked Dutchmen (30-6-4) extended their unbeaten streak to 14-0-1, the longest in the country, and are headed to Philadelphia for a second Final Four appearance in three seasons.
“Last night, I said he was their best forward. Tonight, he might be their best goalie,” Leaman said of Gostisbehere’s heroics. “He’s a big-time player. People are going to be talking about that kid for a long time.
“If we get that, it’s 1-1, and we have a little more jump in us.”
But the jump never followed as Providence (22-11-6), which had just 14 shots through the first two periods, slogged through the neutral zone.
In the second period, Saracino and Shane Luke broke into the Union zone on an odd-man rush, but Saracino lost his handle on the puck.
Shortly after, Steve McParland charged in alone, but Stevens (25 saves) easily secured the backhand attempt.
“I thought the first half of the game, we struggled in the neutral zone and struggled getting the puck out of our zone on the first touch,” Leaman said. “We didn’t have our legs, and they had great jump and they were on us, using their speed.”
It took most of the third period, but Providence finally began showing a sense of urgency.
The Friars put 12 shots on net in the final period and scored after a scramble in front forced a rebound out to Saracino, who slammed it home with 5:05 to go.
“We knew we had to be desperate in the third, and we were just pushing the pace,” Saracino said. “We knew it wasn’t over, we were just trying to get pucks deep and on the forecheck.”
After a media timeout, Union pressed hard on the forecheck and Novak stripped the puck, circled the Providence net, and hit Hatch for the one-timer that iced the victory.
“We kind of got off our game a little bit in the third there, and Max was forechecking hard and we knew we wanted to find the soft spots in the slot,” Hatch said. “I kind of just got lost, and Max made a great pass out and I just tried to get it off as quick as I can.”
Novak scored 58 seconds into the second period off his own rebound, poking the puck past Gillies (28 saves) until it trickled into the net.
“Just some puck luck there,” Leaman said.
Novak, whose three goals over two games earned him the East Regional’s most outstanding player award, was surprised it went in.
“I just tried to take it to the net and it trickled through,” Novak said. “Seemed like it took forever to get past the goal line.”
Union attacked Gillies early and often, going high to the glove side of the Providence goaltender.
Less than three minutes into the game, defenseman Mat Bodie gave Union a 1-0 lead when he ripped a shot from the top of the left circle, beating Gillies high to the far post.
The last time Union advanced to the Frozen Four, they lost to Ferris State, 3-1. Bodie, the Dutchmen’s captain, was a sophomore then, and feels the team will be better prepared.
“The one thing I remember about last time, it was just a whirlwind how quick it all went by,” Bodie said. “After the game, we realized how hard we had to work, and I think we’ve worked just as hard as we did that year..”Anthony Gulizia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gulizia_a