NCAA Frozen Four Notebook: O'Connor's gaffe; Leaman the builder

Puck Daddy
AP Photo/Elise Amendola
AP Photo/Elise Amendola

BOSTON -- Poor Matt O'Connor had to sit there and explain to everyone about how he'd just run over his own dog.

“I definitely just thought I tried to roll it out of my glove, so I dropped down on my knees, and I guess it got my pad and trickled through,” he said. “So, [poop] happens.”

This was an all-time legendary gaffe at the worst possible time for the BU netminder, who also happens to be the nation's most sought-after college free agent. And there's a good reason for that: He's a size-y, quality college goaltender. 

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People will be talking about Matt O'Connor putting it into his own net for years. It was certainly a surprise that it happened at that stage in the game — with BU up 3-2 midway through the third period — but the thing is, though, that this is a goalie who had always had difficulties handling the puck, and had a bit of a penchant for gaffes in the last month or so. In the NCAA tournament alone this year, he gave up a long shot off his glove and in against Minnesota Duluth, lost a puck in his skates that got tapped into an empty net against North Dakota, and conceded this baffler against Providence.

Now, these are just a few individual plays in a season in which he stopped almost 93 percent of the 1,000-plus shots he faced, but they did point to a pattern of BU having to bail out their guy. Which is fine because they have that offense, but Providence is so good at keeping teams out of the middle of the ice, and it was so quick on the counter-attack — scoring twice in 2:19 to turn a one-goal deficit to a one-goal lead in the third period against this BU team is astonishing — that things got dicey.

The Terriers offense has been a magic-maker throughout the season, and they ended the year outscoring opponents 69-29 in the third period, and taking 55.7 percent of the shots in it despite almost always being ahead. But you can't expect to manufacture goals against Jon Gillies, probably the best goaltender in the nation over the last three years on aggregate (he has .931 career save percentage on more than 3,200 shots in 108 games), with less than 10 minutes to go in the third period. Jack Eichel or not.

Certainly, losing like this, in the period that had been the team's hallmark, was a bit of a surprise.

“We felt good,” said defenseman Brandon Hickey of the mood in the room during the second intermission. “Obviously having a lead going into the third period, where it's been our best period all year, is comforting. We just tried not to let our minds wander. You gotta give them credit; they came out with all they've got. I just think they started playing for their lives.” 

Indeed, the Friars went from conceding 40 shots and three goals through the first two periods to putting up 20 and scoring twice themselves in the third. That big, hard push was aided by that goofy goal — O'Connor added that he thinks he lost it a little in the lights — but it gave the Friars belief that BU was in fact beatable.

“I was on the bench and I just saw a dump and I didn't think anything of it,” said Providence center Mark Jankowski, who scored Providence's lone goal prior to the comeback. “And he didn't know where it was, and I still didn't think anything of it, because I thought it was stuck in him or something. Then I see the people behind him in the stands. They all jumped up and went crazy. Right then I knew we’re gonna pounce and we were gonna come back.”

BU was visibly stunned by the turn of events, and while they certainly cranked up the intensity, as any team trailing by a goal late in a championship game would down the stretch, making up ground was tough as Providence really packed it in. Maybe BU had a decent attempt or two at the end, but it wasn't enough to bother Gillies and Co. too badly. 

Said BU captain Matt Grzelcyk of the way the game ended: “I was kind of shocked, really, to see it slip away as fast as it did.”

Only kinda how they drew it up

What's interesting about the title game was that it featured 95 shots on goal in all situations, and 136 attempts at even-strength alone. By that token, it was both vintage Providence hockey, and very atypical of their usual outcomes.

The Friars are a low-event team. They're good at keeping the game to the perimeter even when they're absorbing pressure, which occasionally leads to a lot of attempts and high shot totals, but nothing like this.

“You gotta be ready to go, and know they're gonna get chances because that's just how thing are,” said Friars goaltender Jon Gillies, who stopped 74 of 78 (.949) at the Frozen Four. “Our guys did a great job of keeping them to the outside. A lot of the shots they had were trying to create a rebound off the wall, and if things did squirt out, our guys were able to clear it, thankfully, and have my back that way. There were a lot of shots on the board, but I think we did a good job of closing time and space, and closing it out.”

Or to put it differently: Providence wasn't going to give up anything in the middle of the ice, and they were more than happy to let BU bomb it in from outside the circles. Except, of course, for the first BU goal scored by Ahti Oksanen, on a low-angle shot from quite a long way away from the net, which Gillies said he never even saw. 

“We knew that they're a really good defensive team and we knew it would be hard to get Grade-A scoring chances, so I wouldn't say we tried to shoot from the outside, but that was just something we had to do, to get something at least,” Oksanen said. “We'd been talking a lot with [Cason] Hohmann and [A.J.] Greer about just throwing pucks to the net. Two guys go to the net, and just throw the puck in. I wasn't thinking about scoring but I'm glad it somehow went in.”

Then immediately thereafter, Jack Eichel did the Jack Eichel thing, making a dazzling individual play to scythe through the Providence defense off the draw. He got the puck to Danny O'Regan, who beat Gillies four seconds later. It was the fastest two goals in NCAA tournament history, and in the end it didn't matter much. 

“That's hockey,” Jankowski said with the dismissive air of someone whose mistakes didn't come back to bite them. “Sometimes that happens. We let our guard down for a little bit there, for that little four seconds or whatever it was there, and we just had to bounce back. I think we did that pretty well.”

Gillies wasn't about to crack, either. He's too good at just about everything, whether it's getting square to whatever he sees, controlling rebounds, taking up a lot of the net, and even making ultra-athletic moves to keep the puck out of the net. The Friars can, at the very least, operate under the assumption that he's going to clean up almost any mess they make. Those were rare tonight, but he was there.

“He's the best goalie in college, hands down. Hands down,” said defenseman John Gilmour, who like Gillies and Jankowski is a Calgary Flames draft pick. “We know Jonny can take any kind of pressure. That's why we feel great having him behind us. They could have shot 20 or 30 more shots and we'd still feel comfortable with Jonny. He's amazing and this championship is a lot due to him.”

Leaman a master builder

Last year, Union won the national championship for the first time in school history. This year, Providence did the same. The man who built both of those teams only has one ring to show for it. 

Nate Leaman was the head coach at Union for eight seasons and built that program from a club that was routinely sub-.500 to one that won 20 games like clockwork. Over his final three seasons, the Dutchmen went from 19 wins to 21 to 26. Then Leaman left to take the Providence job, and the winning continued with many players he recruited: 26 again, then 22, then 32 and the national title.

Meanwhile, he started from scratch at Providence and his teams experienced an even faster turnaround: 14 wins to 17 to 22 to this year's 26 and a title. Leaman would defer a lot of credit to his players, obviously, but he's the guy who brings them in, and there are few better in-game coaches in the college ranks. His Friars are so well-martialed that at some point it becomes like Eli Whitney and his interchangeable parts; they can keep playing like this — dominating possession, keeping opponents at bay in their own zone, and winning plenty of games as a result — forever. 

The Friars lose a number of seniors, and Gillies doesn't seem long for the college game (what more does he have to prove?), so there's some thought that this team is going to shed some talent, but Leaman's a proven recruiter of guys who can fit exceptionally into his system, and you'd be thinking a bit wishfully if you believed this isn't a program that's built to make more Frozen Fours down the road.

Fire Hakstol? Really?

Speaking of coaches, the thing you always hear about coaches is whether they should be fired for not getting their team “over the hump.” Doesn't matter how successful they are; fans have a picture of what a program should be in their mind, and when that picture is “annual national title contender,” not-winning national titles — which by the way is really damn hard to do — becomes a theoretically fireable offense.

Such is the case with Dave Hakstol, who hasn't won a championship at North Dakota since coming aboard in 2004-05. NoDak, in fact, hasn't won since 2000. And 15 years is a long time to wait when you're an impatient crybaby fanboy. “Fire Hakstol,” has consequently been mumbled basically since the second North Dakota got beaten by the most impressive freshman in decades.

The facts are these: Hakstol's teams have been to the Frozen Four seven times in 11 seasons. Think about that. If you are a North Dakota fan, you can pretty much book your airline and hotel a year in advance, because you have nearly a 2-in-3 chance of going to the Frozen Four. And the four years they didn't make it? They still made the NCAA tournament.

As always, the question you have to ask yourself when you want to fire your coach is, “Who's going to do better?” The answer in this particular case is, “No one. So shut up.”

Will Omaha be back?

A lot of the quotes that followed Nebraska-Omaha's loss to Providence on Thursday were along the lines of, “This team will be back.” And it's nice to think that way, but it doesn't seem particularly realistic.

Yes, Omaha is young, and yes they have a good coach. But they got dramatically out-possessed this season (their 47.5 CF% finished 45th of 59 teams nationally), and relied heavily on Ryan Massa to bail them out. And boy did he ever, racking up a season-long save percentage of .939. 

So the question is: Can this team improve its possession numbers significantly enough over the next few years that the issue smoothes itself out? Sure. Again, Dean Blais is a very good coach. But can teams make huge leaps without getting, say, a Jack Eichel-type player? Not really. Modest, yes, but and maybe year-over-year it gets better, but not that much better, and not that quickly.

Because one thing's for certain. The odds of Omaha getting another .939 starter are extraordinarily low, even if Massa weren't a senior, which he is. He was barely above .900 for his career headed into the season. So this was a nice run, and a nice trip to Boston. But Omaha making the Frozen Four again any time soon would be a legitimate surprise. 

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and also covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here

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