By Kevin Gier
For Nick Saracino and the Providence College hockey team, the month of March was expected to be a bit short. After being shocked in the Hockey East quarterfinals by New Hampshire, the Friars were expecting to travel half the country and become cannon fodder for some other power.
“We were expecting to probably go out to Fargo, and we knew that was going to be a really tough atmosphere out there, obviously, with all their fans,” Saracino said of the atmosphere in the PC dressing room as they watched the selection show. “But when we saw we got Providence, we definitely thought we got a second life.”
The Friars certainly made the most of that second life: behind excellent goaltending from Jon Gillies, and with the backdrop of three of the most noteworthy moments in the NCAA hockey tournament, the #4 seeded Friars took the national title back to Rhode Island, leaving Miami, Denver, Nebraska-Omaha and Boston University in their wake.
“It’s been pretty crazy, it still hasn’t really hit me yet,” said Saracino, a junior forward and assistant captain, on winning the first Frozen Four championship in school history.
And while most of the media storylines about PC have centered around their Calgary-bound keeper, the former Missouri state and national champion forward with CBC and the St. Louis Jr. Blues has put up a career year for himself, leading the team in points (38) and assists (24), and is second on the team in goals with 14.
Despite his own quality numbers, Saracino was self-effacing about his own accomplishments, noting “obviously if I have a nice performance at the Frozen Four I just would hope that it would help my team win. That’s the most important thing….We definitely have the pieces, we just have to perform.”
As it turns out, Saracino did have a “nice performance” at the TD Garden: in the national semifinal against Omaha, he assisted on the first two Friar goals, and potted an empty-netter with 31 seconds to play that sealed Providence’s first trip to the national title game since 1985, when they were beaten 2-1 by an RPI team that was led by Hockey Hall of Famer Adam Oates.
“The first goal was, we were all over them but just didn’t beat their goaltender…it was just a soft shot on net, there was a rebound, I got a piece of the rebound and my linemate Noel Acciari just banged it home,” said Saracino of his first point of the night.
On his second assist that occurred just minutes later, the South City native described it as the result of an “excellent forecheck” that allowed him to pass the puck to a wide-open Mark Jankowski, who scored the eventual game-winning goal.
Against Hobey Baker Award winner (and potential #1 NHL draft pick) Jack Eichel and the Terriers, the Friars came back from a 3-2 deficit in the 3rd period to win 4-3, beating BU for the second time this season in the Hub. Saracino was fairly quiet during the final, recording five total shots on Matt O’Connor but ending the night -1.
Before he could reach the bright lights and big stage in Boston, however, Saracino and his Friars had to contend with two games against highly decorated opposition from the notoriously tough NCHC in Miami and Denver. However, backed by a raucous home crowd at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, Providence advanced to the Frozen Four.
“We definitely thought we were underdogs coming in there: Miami had just come off a championship, Denver had a tough loss but then played the consolation game and beat North Dakota….We knew that we could win, we just had to focus on our game and not on their game,” said Saracino of their draw.
However, crazy events happened in both their regional games that could have affected the Friars’ focus: in the semi-final against Miami, Redhawks coach Enrico Blasi pulled his goaltender for most of the game’s last 13 minutes and very nearly came back from a 6-2 deficit to tie the game, and in the 3rd period of the final Denver’s star defenseman Joey LaLeggia was given a major and sent off for head contact, changing the complexion of what was at the time a 2-1 game with the Pioneers on the offensive.
In the first game, however, Saracino said that Providence was well-prepared for the extra attacker, as Blasi had tipped his hand. “We actually heard them; I think it was like during the 15-minute TV timeout, we heard their coach say we’re pulling the goalie, and you’re thinking, pulling the goalie? There’s still 15 minutes left in this game!…They played really hard, but luckily we held off.”
In fact, this incident would later serve as a teaching moment in Saracino’s only goal of the NCAA tournament: with just 31 seconds remaining in the national semifinal and Omaha goalie Ryan Massa pulled, Saracino spotted an opening that allowed him to assure their spot in the national championship.
“Against Miami, we were struggling with empty netters, so I took a slapshot to make sure it went in,” he remarked.
However, in the regional final things were not quite as obvious as it was against Miami. “They said it was automatically going to be five, they just didn’t know if he was going to be kicked out or not (NCAA rules require a video review of head-high hits to determine if they warrant a disqualification). We just knew that if we executed on this power play, we were going to have a really good chance of winning this game, and then Tom Parisi scored that goal.”
While his clash with the Mavericks was thankfully devoid of crazy moments (his three points notwithstanding), the final was most certainly not: with 8:36 remaining and the Friars down a goal, Parisi innocuously chipped the puck on the Boston goal. O’Connor went to catch it and seemingly had it in his glove: however, he then dropped the puck as if to play it and it slipped between his pads and into the net, providing an unlikely spark to the PC comeback.
Saracino was actually on the ice when the fateful goal was scored, and said that “no one from our angle could see it go in, because [O’Connor] was blocking it. Then all of a sudden you just saw the ref point, and then you were like, oh my God, no way! We knew he was going to be shaken up from that, and we knew that we now had the momentum.”
Saracino now gets to add an NCAA ring to his already bulging trophy case: it joins Challenge Cup honors with CBC, the 2010 Tier III Junior A title he won with the St Louis Jr. Blues, and the 2011 Anderson Cup for the best record in the USHL, picked up during his stint with Cedar Rapids.