Providence shuts out Cornell to advance to Frozen Four

Center Josh Wilkins was named the East Region's Most Oustanding Player.

Providence Cornell NCAA Hockey Tournament
Providence's road to the national championship goes through defending champion Minnesota Duluth on April 11. –The Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — With the memory of losing to Notre Dame in the East Regional final in 2018 still fresh in their minds, the Providence College hockey team was out to make sure history did not repeat itself, beating Cornell, 4-0, in front of their hometown fans at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center Sunday to advance to the Frozen Four.

Providence (24-11-6) will face defending national champion Minnesota Duluth on April 11 in Buffalo, N.Y. Minnesota-Duluth clinched its third straight trip to the Frozen Four by beating Quinnipiac, 3-1, in the Midwest Regional final in Allentown, Pa. UMass, which defeated Notre Dame in the Northeast regional final Saturday night, will face Denver in the other semifinal.

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Last year, the Friars were tied with Notre Dame entering the final minute, but the Fighting Irish scored with 27 seconds remaining and held on for a 2-1 win to end Providence’s season.

“It was the worst feeling last year. We were 30 seconds away from an overtime, an overtime that we felt good about,’’ said goalie Hayden Hawkey, who recorded 19 saves for his seventh shutout of the season. “But now, to see what we’ve done all year, we used that as motivation. The guys were talking about it in between periods, about that feeling from last year, it wasn’t good, and we didn’t want that again.’’

Neither team was able to generate much offense in the opening 10 minutes, until the Friars got on the board with 9:40 remaining in the first period. Junior Jacob Bryson sent the puck in on net from just inside the blue line from the left. Cornell goalie Austin McGrath (25 saves) made the stop, but sophomore Greg Printz, posting up in front of the goal, was able to corral the loose puck and knock it past McGrath for the only goal of the first period.

“It was a huge focus going into the game because we had been trailing a lot recently,’’ said Printz. “We just knew that if we got the first goal, we’d have a good chance to win, so as soon as we scored the first goal, it was a huge lift for the team. We were able to get comfortable and just play our game.’’

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The Friars had another opportunity in the closing minute of the first period when Cornell defenseman Matt Nuttle lost his skates in his own zone while retrieving the puck and turned it over. Providence’s Bryan Lemos gathered it and had a breakaway, but McGrath stayed in position and denied the bid.

Providence wouldn’t have to wait long for another opportunity once the second period started, and this time they capitalized. Jack Dugan circled with the puck just inside the blue line and sent it on net. The initial shot was stopped, as was Kasper Bjorkqvist’s putback attempt, but Josh Wilkins was able to get it past McGrath when the puck deflected off his skate and in. The play was reviewed, and the call upheld.

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Wilkins would be named the region’s Most Outstanding player after tallying three goals and two assists over the weekend.

Cornell (21-11-4) struggled to generate much offense the entire second period, landing just four shots on goal, and was hoping to avoid further damage, but the Friars would strike again with .6 left on the clock.

With his team on the power play, Brandon Duhaime skated down the right side past the goal, then circled wide and kicked the puck back out to Wilkins, who sent it in toward the Cornell goal where Scott Conway was able to re-direct it past McGrath for a 3-0 lead heading into the third period.

“That’s just a big-time play,’’ said Providence coach Nate Leaman. “One of the guys on the bench told [Duhaime] that there was nine seconds left, and he tried to get to the net. He couldn’t get there, but that’s just great awareness. We’ve got some good players with some good awareness. I thought they executed a great game plan.’’

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Duhaime would get a goal of his own, scoring an empty-netter with 1:47 left to account for the 4-0 final.

“I’m happy for the players,’’ said Leaman. “I think the guys have been waiting to get back to this point all year long. I think there was a lot of ache in our team from losing last year in this game the way we did, with a minute left.’’

It was not an easy route back to the Frozen Four, as Providence was upset by Boston College in the conference quarterfinals and had to wait out the results of conference championship weekend to see if it would be playing in the NCAA tournament. Everything broke right, and the Friars were slotted in the East Regional as the No. 4 seed, and advanced to the final by defeating Minnesota State, 6-3, in the first round on Saturday.

Providence had taken this road before. In 2015, Providence lost in the Hockey East quarterfinals, then had to sweat out the conference championship. They were the No. 4 seed in the Providence regional that year as well, and knocked off top seed Miami and No. 2 seed Denver to reach the Frozen Four in Boston, where they would defeat Omaha and Boston University for the school’s first national championship.

Cornell was hoping to repeat a little history of its own. In 2003, Cornell defeated Boston College, 2-1, in the regional final in Providence to advance to the Frozen Four, which was held in Buffalo that year as well. The Big Red would go on to lose to UNH, 3-2, and have yet to reach the Frozen Four since.

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