John Leonard’s hat trick leads No. 8 UMass past No. 10 Providence, 5-1

With the top-10 sweep, the Minutemen maintain first place in Hockey East

By Liam Flaherty, Assistant Sports Editor

Have a night, John Leonard.

After Niko Hildenbrand stepped up with two third-period goals on Friday night, Leonard answered the bell Saturday, notching his first-career hat trick to will the Massachusetts hockey team past No. 10 Providence, 5-1, and complete the pivotal top-10 weekend sweep on the road.

The Amherst native broke the ice late in the first period on a 4-on-4 opportunity. In the second, he notched his second of the game on a shorthanded bid to double the lead in the final minutes of the frame.

After the Friars (14-9-5, 8-8-2 Hockey East) pulled within two in the third, No. 9 made sure it didn’t get any closer, burying his third of the night and 20th of the season.

“I thought it was a really hard fought, defensive-minded game,” Greg Carvel said. “There wasn’t a lot of offense either way and then John took over with his skill. All three of his goals and the power-play goal he set up were individual efforts by him. You don’t see many games where one guy just dramatically decides the game but that was the case tonight. That was an all-time effort.”

With the win, No, 8 UMass retains first place in Hockey East.

In such a crucial weekend for the season, the Minutemen (18-9-2, 11-6-2 HEA) needed their leaders to step up, and that’s exactly what they did. Veterans set the tone on both nights, playing hard and winning battles up and down the ice.

“It’s part of your responsibility when you get to be an upperclassman and you’re given the power play and top minutes in a game,” Carvel said. “They’re responsible to be effective like that. Niko, unbelievable effort by him last night and same by John tonight. That’s great leadership.”

The battle mentality they brought to the ice shined bright when Leonard broke the ice 13:11 into the first.

After Mitchell Chaffee was called for interference three seconds into a UMass power play to make it 4-on-4 for nearly two minutes, Zac Jones picked up the puck deep into his own zone.

Head up, the freshman found Leonard streaking across the red line and hit him with a tape-to-tape pass. From there, it was all Leonard, all the way. With a burst of speed, the Amherst native split two Friar defenders crossing over the blue line, before outmuscling the back-check of another incoming PC stick. While moving to his left, No. 9 lifted a shot and beat Michael Lackey top right.

The goal set a new program record for most goals scored by a junior with 18, but he wasn’t done.

15 minutes into the second, on the penalty kill no less, Leonard single-handedly doubled the lead, taking it zone to zone, faking a slap shot before ripping one over Lackey’s glove, again.

Three minutes later, fellow junior Oliver Chau picked up his fifth of the year on a tremendous individual play that began when he outraced a Friar defender down the length of the ice.

“Last night I felt like they scored a fluke goal and that was a bit of a fluke goal,” Carvel said, “but it started with an outstanding effort by Oliver to negate the icing and win the battle to get the puck to the front of the net, so that was a huge goal. Big turning point in the game for me.”

With the Friars trailing 3-0, sophomore Tyce Thompson got one back on the power play to pull PC within two, but Leonard came right back with his third of the night on another feed from Jones.

4-1 UMass.

He still wasn’t done, though, and less than two minutes later, No. 9’s fourth big impact-play of the night came on the power play when he set up Jack Suter on a backdoor pass to finish the scoring. The power-play marker marked the Minutemen’s 13th of the year and their first since Jan. 18.

In the midst of Leonard’s scoring, Matt Murray made 21 saves in net. On the weekend, he and Filip Lindberg combined to allow just two goals to Providence over the course of 120 minutes.

Against the premier power play in Hockey East, only one of those came on the man advantage.

“I thought we played really well defensively; we didn’t give up much tonight except the power play goal,” Carvel said. “Five on five we did a really good job, and as did they. So that’s a really good sign for us this time of the year that defensively we’re playing a solid game.”

After being shut out by Boston College last weekend at home and taking just one of four points from New Hampshire the week before, two wins and four key points over a high-powered Friars team were just what the Minutemen needed. Now, they get to enjoy a well-earned week off. Safe to say, Carvel is pleased with how his team has handled itself.

“A week ago, we were really kind of looking for answers,” he said.

“I give the whole team credit that we were able to identify what we thought the problems were and all attacked it as hard as we could, and the results showed it. So, I think it’s a real good time for us to go on break, we’ve had a really demanding schedule since we came back the day after Christmas, most games we’ve played have been against NCAA top-20 teams, so I think we were able to prove something to ourselves tonight, get us back to understanding what it takes to win.”

Liam Flaherty can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @_LiamFlaherty.