2015 Frozen Four Preview: Experienced Providence takes on upstart Nebraska-Omaha

By Ken McKenna
Nick Saracino - Providence College; Jake Guentzel - University of Nebraska-Omaha - 2015 Frozen Four Semi-final

Photo: Providence College forward Nick Saracino (L) and University of Nebraska-Omaha forward and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Jake Guentzel (R) lead their respective teams in scoring in the 2014-15 season (courtesy of Corey Silvia/Icon Sportswire and Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

 

The first semi-final matchup at the 2015 NCAA Frozen Four tournament pits two regional fourth seeds against one another, Providence College and the University of Nebraska-Omaha. While there is little history between the two teams – they haven’t met since 2005 – the winner moves on to the title game with a chance to produce an upset win.

The preview below breaks down the two teams, looking at key players as well as strengths and weaknesses.

Who: University of Nebraska-Omaha vs. Providence College
When: April 9th, 5:00 PM EST
Where: TD Garden, Boston, MA

University of Nebraska-Omaha (NCHC)

How they got here: UNO posted an overall record of 20-12-6 for the 2014-15 regular season, and were then ousted by St. Cloud State in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff. The Mavericks were the fourth seed in the Midwest Regional, but went on to defeat ECAC champion Harvard by a 4-1 score, then shutout Atlantic Hockey champion RIT 4-0 in the quarterfinals to advance to their first-ever Frozen Four.

Players to watch: If the game is tied late or goes into overtime, the player to keep an eye on is sophomore forward Austin Ortega. The Escondido, CA native scored 11 game-winning goals this season, tops in the nation and two more than runner-up Sean Kuraly of Miami. Ortega, along with UNO’s leading scorer Jake Guentzel (PIT), formed the most effective offensive unit for the Mavericks, with Ortega posting 37 points (20G, 17A) in 38 games and Guentzel notching 38 points (13G, 25A) in 35 games.

The Mavericks weren’t a two-person operation, however, as they also featured seven more players with 16 points or more, including freshmen forwards Jake Randolph and Tyler Vesel (WSH). Randolph was third in scoring for the Mavericks with 26 points (5G, 21A) in 38 games, while Vesel posted 22 points (8G, 14A) in 38 games. Sophomore defenseman Ian Brady led the way on offense from the blueline, notching 21 points in 37 games, but right behind him were sophomore Brian Cooper (ANA) and freshman Luc Snuggerud (CHI), each of whom posted 16 points.

But, from Mavericks’ head coach Dean Blais on down to UNO’s skaters, the player they deemed to be the straw that stirred the drink for the team this season was senior goaltender Ryan Massa. Massa appeared in 28 of UNO’s games, posting a 14-7-6-2 record, a 1.92 goals-against average, and a .939 save percentage that was tied for the best in the nation.

What they do best: In addition to featuring clutch scoring and an overall balanced scoring attack, they feature a group of smart, creative players that won’t play the game like robots. The goaltending of Massa has been the main strength on defense, but the Mavericks have also kept the scoring down with a penalty-killing unit that was ranked 13th in the nation.

How they might be vulnerable: While it wouldn’t be accurate to refer to them as a small hockey team, several of their key players fail to reach the 6-foot mark. Guentzel (5’10”), Otega (5’8”), Randolph (5’9”), and Vesel (5’11”) – the team’s top four scorers – along with team captain Dominic Zombo (5’10”) are all smaller in stature. Inexperience is another area that could hurt UNO’s chances, with 17 players on the roster being either freshmen or sophomores.

Ace in the hole: Head Coach Blais has been here before, and in fact won a pair of national championships during his tenure with the University of North Dakota. If there is a coach in this tournament that can push all the right buttons, Blais would likely be that coach.

Providence College (Hockey East)

How they got here: Providence posted a record of 24-13-2 during the regular season. The Friars were then ousted from the Hockey East Quaterfinal by the University of New Hampshire, two games to one, but still landed in the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament as a fourth seed. Once there, the Friars exploded for 11 goals in two games while defeating Miami University by a 7-5 score, then knocking off the University of Denver, 4-1, to advance to the Frozen Four.

Players to watch: While the Friars do not possess a true sniper, the talented trio of upperclassmen at the top of the Providence scoring ranks – forwards Nick Saracino, Shane Luke, and Noel Acciari – all produced 30 or more points this season. Saracino led the way with 35 points (13G, 22A) in 38 games, while Luke posted 31 points (13G, 18A) in 39 games, and Acciari totaled 30 points (14G, 16A) in 39 games.

Not unlike the Mavericks, and maybe one-upping them in this area, is the scoring depth in the Friars lineup. Aside from the top three scorers, seven players on the Providence roster posted 15 points or more, with four of those players notching between 22 and 29 points this season. Five of those seven players are upperclassmen, with just two of the seven – Tom Parisi and Jake Walman (STL) – being defensemen.

In goal, junior Jon Gillies (CGY) carried most of the weight this season, appearing in 37 of the Friars’ 39 games. Gillies turned in a strong 2014-15 campaign after an up-and-down 2013-14 season, posting a 2.08 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.

What they do best: The combination of balanced scoring among the forwards, most of whom are upperclassmen, and the consistency in goal provided by Gillies might be enough to carry Providence to the title game. The Friars may not have the star power of Boston University or North Dakota, but the forward unit has been a workmanlike crew for most of the 2014-15 season. One other statistic that stands out for Providence is their record when they are leading after two periods – 17-1-0, with the one loss coming in the opening game of the season vs. Ohio State.

How they might be vulnerable: While the Friars were solid at killing penalties, finishing 16th in the nation in that category, they were not particularly impressive with the man advantage. And, while their defense features a couple of intriguing underclassmen defenders in Anthony Florentino (BUF) and Jake Walman, it is a more lunch-pail unit than the one they will be facing in the semi-finals.

Ace in the hole: For a regional fourth seed to advance to the title game and have a shot at winning it all, the goaltending must be top notch. Gillies has the ability to provide that type of goaltending, as he has been a much more consistent netminder this season.

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