The last time Brian Pinho skated off the ice at the TD Garden is a memory he’d like to forget — but can’t.
Forty-nine months later, he’ll be back on the most famous ice surface in Boston Thursday evening wearing a different uniform for a different team ... and hoping for a much different outcome.
A dynamic freshman forward at Providence College, Pinho and the Friars will meet the University of Nebraska-Omaha in the first of two Frozen Four semifinals (5 p.m.), with the winner advancing to Saturday’s college hockey’s championship game.
“It’s pretty crazy and really cool,” said Pinho, when asked to describe what his first year of college hockey has been like leading up to this, two games away from a national title. “We’re in a good spot and if we play the way we know we can, we’ve got a good chance (of advancing).
“This is the first time I’ve played at the Garden since we,” added Pinho, a former St. John’s Prep star centerman — “lost to Malden Catholic in overtime of the (2011) Super 8 final. It’s hard to believe I haven’t played there since. So it’ll be great ... and I feel like I’m due for a win there.”
His parents, Jim and Kerri Pinho, will be in attendance at the Garden; so will his older brother Kyle and younger sister Caroline, among other family members and friends lucky enough to scoop up tickets to this marquee event.
Having graduated from St. John’s Prep in 2013 with 101 career points (35 goals, 66 assists), Pinho went to the United States Hockey League for one season and made it a memorable one. He helped lead the Indiana Ice to the USHL’s Clark Cup championship, finishing as the team’s second-leading scorer and scoring the game-winning, title-clinching goal in the final minutes of play.
Last fall he joined the Friars and cemented his status early as a top six forward. At 6-foot-1 and 185-pounds, he had the skating ability, stickhandling skills and reach to perform well in an offense role and hasn’t disappointed, picking up six goals and 11 assists with a plus-7 rating in 37 contests.
“I think I’ve done all right,” said Pinho, who will turn 20 years old next month. “Playing at this level took some getting used to, especially the strength of other players. Some of these guys are pretty old and as a younger player, being in the corners and stuff, you have to be able to handle yourself and win battles.
“By the second half of the season I got used to it and felt like I was really helping the team a lot more, which is the most important thing. It doesn’t really matter how I play; if the team wins, that’s all that matters to me.”
Responding as the stakes get higher
Going from a team in the USHL that was heavily offensive-minded to a Providence squad that preaches defensive responsibility in front of standout goaltender Jon Gillies at all times took some getting used to. But as with his adjustment to the physicality of college hockey, Pinho also made the necessary alterations to contribute in all three zones for the Friars.
A sixth round draft pick of the Washington Capitals two years ago, Pinho — who wears the same No. 26 he donned as a St. John’s Prep Eagle — has been playing some of his best hockey as of late.
At the East Regionals at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence two weekends ago, he had a goal in the Friars’ 7-5 victory over Miami of Ohio. The following night, he put forth a superb all-around game as fourth-seeded PC downed No. 2 Denver, 4-1, to advance to their first Frozen Four since 1985.
He did so skating right wing on Providence’s top line with juniors Joel Acciari at center and Nick Saracino on the left side. The trio had instant chemistry, said Pinho, combining for three goals and three assists on the weekend. He’ll likely play with the same two players Thursday night, with the Friars possibly employing 11 forwards and seven defensemen.
“Playing before a lot of our families and fans at the Dunk was pretty cool for NCAAs,” said Pinho, who had skated for much of the second half of the season with seniors Shane Luke and Ross Mauerman. “We lucked out (playing there), but the building was rocking and that definitely helped us.
“I thought I played really well, and so did our team both games. We have a lot of seniors and juniors that were able to help the younger guys relax and realize how important the games were. As a whole we did a great job.”
Ending with a big splash
Pinho’s college career began with a bang; the North Andover native scored in his first game against Ohio State, then beat the Buckeyes with the game-winner the following night.
Now, on college hockey’s penultimate stage, he’d like to end his freshman campaign with an even bigger splash, beginning Thursday against Nebraska-Omaha.
“We watched film of them, what they like to do and how we can beat it,” Pinho said of the Mavericks, many of whom he competed against last year in the USHL. “We always say if we can score three goals a game, then Jon (Gillies) will take care of the rest. He’s really, really good, probably the best goalie in college hockey, and that helps a lot. Hopefully Thursday we can get a few goals and he’ll handle it from there.”