October 31 2013 08:48AM
Providence College seems to be very much a team on the rise in both its conference and the nation, and a large part of the reason, as you might expect, is that the Calgary Flames' prospects currently populating the roster have been excellent to this point.
All three of Jon Gillies, Mark Jankowski, and John Gilmour have been early producers for a team that's started the year 4-0-1, including posting strong results against some clubs that were expected to be among the best in the country. This past weekend, for example, I saw them take on No. 3 Miami at home and they more or less controlled play for the majority of the weekend.
In all, they won 3-2 in overtime on Friday and skated to a 4-all tie the next night, but on the balance one coach was happy with his team's performance, and the other was more or less not.
Let's start at the very beginning, I guess, and talk about the guy upon whom the Friars are going to rely for just about everything this season: Gillies, the wunderkind netminder and, obviously, Flames third-round pick. His numbers last season sparkled at 2.08/.931 behind a team that was frankly not all that good. So far this year, they're even better at 1.71/.950, and that's after a not-great weekend against one of the best teams in the country.
It should be noted, first, that “not-so-great” is relative. He still posted a 2.85/.921 line on the weekend. Second, the reason he was not-so-great appears to be that he was perhaps hampered by an injury.
“One thing that people are missing is that he didn't play against AIC and missed about four or five days of practice, so he was a little rusty when he came back this week,” said coach Nate Leaman after the 4-4 tie, in which Gillies stopped 37 of 41. “I'm not making an excuse or anything like that, but one thing people are missing is that we've played against excellent goaltenders. … He's played well against them, and we've scored against good goaltenders. I think that's a positive.
Obviously these numbers are ludicrous, but it seems as though he's probably good enough to keep them at least somewhat near the current level. More to the point, though, this Providence team is dramatically improved from last year, at least in the two games I saw this weekend. They have the puck a lot more, they're scoring more, they're not letting everyone they play get to the goalmouth on every possession. That's not going to hurt Gillies if they keep it up obviously.
"I fully realize Jon is going to get a lot of press, and it's well deserved," Leaman said. "But we have a team. Coming into the weekend, we were leading the nation in scoring. Jon can't score. We have a team, and we like our team. The thing I like most about our team is that I see a lot of areas of improvement. I feel like if we work hard, and we take it one day at a time, I see a lot of areas that we can keep getting better and better. I like the step that a lot of our [second-year players] are taking.”
There is also the save at the very beginning of this video, which he made in Saturday's game, and which might be the best one of his career to date. And that's saying something.
Then there's the matter of the Flames' first-round pick from last year's draft. He, too, posted a highlight-reel play this weekend, scoring this goal in the second period of Friday's game.
There was, as I'm sure you can imagine, something of a stunned silence in the pressbox in the immediate aftermath.
“It's a big-time player making a big-time play,” Leaman said. “That goal's a difference-maker, and they have a difference-maker in their No. 7 (undrafted destroyer of worlds and devourer of minutes Austin Czarnik, who's started the year 3-8-11 in just six games). He did that to us last year, Czarnik, on their sheet in overtime. That was a great play by Mark.”
That goal was his fourth of the season in as many games (he was held off the scoresheet the next night but now stands at 4-1-5 in five contests), and it seems that Leaman has seen a big change in the way he's approaching the game.
“It's good to see him have more confidence with the puck and want the puck,” the coach said. “After the first period, he wasn't moving his feet very much and I talked to him about trying to get your feet going. That [scoring play] was his first shift that period and he kind of had his feet going, and it was a pretty nice play.”
Pretty nice, yes. The problem with Jankowski last season was that he was very much a player who shied away from contact, or what you'd call “the hard areas” of the ice, and that's still evident in his game today, albeit to a far lesser extent. He benefited, in that way, by being placed on the wing — where there's less contact and less responsibility — but this season he's been centering the Friars' second line, and that kind of thing is a lot less avoidable.
“I think he's the type of player where last year he probably stayed on the perimeter quite a bit, and this year he's stronger, and I think when you add strength, it adds confidence to your game,” Leaman said. “I think he has confidence, I think he wants the puck more, and I think he wants to go to the net more.”
Going to the net more is certainly happening, and that's reflected in his shot totals. Through five games, he has 14 shots on net, good for 2.8 a night. Not necessarily where you want elite talents — which, as a first-round pick, is what he's supposed to be — but it's also a full shot per game better than the 1.79 he finished with last year. Johnny Gaudreau, just as a means of comparison, put the puck on net 4.02 times per game last year, and is so far at 4.4 in give games this year. (Doesn't hurt, either, that Jankowski is currently shooting 28.6 percent, compared to Gaudreau's more-sustainable 13.6.)
It's important to keep in mind, though, that Jankowski only just turned 19 in September.
“We were kind of giggling before the game,” Leaman said. “He's still I think our second-youngest player and I don't know this, but if I took a snapshot across college hockey, I would stay he's still probably in the lower 20 percent of age. It may be even lower than that. You've still got to remember he's a pretty young guy and he came in from a level that usually Division 1 guys don't come from. He made a pretty big jump.”
He still has a long way to go before he's anything resembling dominant, but this is a very strong start to the season against some very good teams. Minnesota State and Miami are both projected to win their conferences. Jankowski had three points in four games against them.
John Gilmour was a little bit of a surprise to me to be drafted at all last season, but he looked pretty good both nights. He had four shots on goal in the game, which isn't bad for a defenseman, and finished with two assists on the first night of the weekend series.
That, added to his 2-1-3 total from the first game of the season in which the Friars deconstructed Minnesota State 5-1, gives him a point-a-game total as well. Leaman didn't have much to say about Gilmour in particular on either night, but you can go ahead and lump him in with that second-year class that's taking a big step forward in the early goings here.