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I’ve been watching college hockey for a very long time and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as singularly impressive as what Jon Gillies did for Providence College this season.
There have been players that turned around programs or even professional teams almost by themselves: Chris Pronger, Wayne Gretzky, Alex Ovechkin, and so forth have all done so. Gillies is among them. Last season, Providence finished 14-20-4 under new coach Nate Leaman, and was plagued by bad goaltending (Alex Beaudry and Justin Gates, both seniors, posted a team GAA of 3.16, and save percentage of .891). This year, with both those guys gone, Leaman turned to Gillies, a freshman and Calgary Flames third-rounder, to man the crease, and it was the best decision he ever made in his professional life.
The Friars improved three spots in the standings with Gillies, rising all the way to fourth after finishing seventh the year before, winners of 15 games, losers of just 12, tie-ers of seven. They also entered the final day of the season tied for first place with eventual champions UMass Lowell. But that seemingly modest jump from seventh to fourth is notable because it guaranteed the team a home ice spot in a brutally competitive conference for the first time since 2003.
All of it runs through Gillies. His stats shine at 2.06 and .932, and all those wins and all the team’s being competitive for a league title, which they’d have secured if they won on Saturday, comes despite the Friars scoring fewer than three goals per game and having just three players with more than 20 points in the team’s 34 games. How much did Providence rely on him? He played every second of every game for which he was on the same continent as his team — he missed three games, none of which Providence won, because he was a backup to John Gibson at World Juniors in Ufa — amassing a 1867:07 between the pipes.
There’s been some discussion among the Hockey East media as to whether he, fellow Flames pick Johnny Gaudreau, or Steven Whitney should be the league’s MVP and as far as I can tell anyone not picking Gillies is a complete lunatic. Not only was he the best player, putting up those stats behind a not-very-good-team while Gaudreau and Whitney play for reigning national champions Boston College, but even if you’re defining these players through the narrow prism of who is most valuable rather than best, then I say again that Gillies had those stats behind a team that was considerably sub-.500 just a year ago.
His highlights routinely featured him bailing out everyone on the ice, and were also surprisingly frequent. Just last week, one of his saves (which completely changed the complexion of that particular game, on the road at BC) made SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays, and you know how hard it is for even the best hockey highlights to edge out the most mediocre NCAA basketball dunks.
Gillies is currently the best goaltender in the conference, and did it all as a freshman. This was the most impressive rookie season I’ve seen in Hockey East, and I’ve seen a lot of them. If he doesn’t win all the awards for which he’s eligible this year (and one or two for which he’s not), the system is broken.
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