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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Hockey Log: Sunday Edition

Hockey Log: Sunday Edition

Huskies on top for good Thiessen

The Northeastern men’s hockey team’s frosh-piloted ride to redemption last year proved easy come, easy go when it came time to apply the Sharpie-strong stamp last March. Workhorse goaltender Brad Thiessen was the apt object of derision for the ever-hostile Conte Forum as he swallowed a six-goal scorching and his Huskies curtained their season with a 7-1 quarter-final loss to Boston College.

But right away, as the perked up Dog Pound Dwellers have given the “tell me more” signal, Thiessen has made a smoother carry-over to this season than any of his peers. Thus far, only junior Joe Vitale has cultivated double-digit points, and nobody has exceeded five goals through Northeastern’s first 13 games.

Thiessen, meantime, has responded to yet more tempests with an identical GAA and save percentage to last year and has the panting Huskies settled comfortably into first place with a 6-3-1 conference record as the holiday freeze takes over; all this in spite of the fact that his club boasts an aggregate scoring edge of 35-33, 30-26 in conference action.

All summer, most every critic sensed at least another manifest step towards renewed mobility for the briefly, but distressingly comatose franchise. For all intents and purposes, Thiessen’s early impression has epitomized and exceeded the prophecies.

Not that long ago –namely the 2005-06 season- the position of crease custodian was by far the boldest item on Northeastern’s “Help Wanted” spread. Going in, skipper Greg Cronin was forced to bid farewell to the reliable Keni Gibson, a sound 15-game winner his senior year. Immediately, Cronin juggled the next-in-line Adam Geragosian opposite two since-vanished frosh named Doug Jewer and Dave Thaler.

The reason for those departures? Try the fact that the new trifecta kilned a 3-24-7 overall showing and, despite seizing every last one of those precious points out of a Hockey East game, the Huskies missed out on post-season activity.

When yet another new kid landed in the form of Thiessen, his senior associate Geragosian had only just come off his first year of substantial playing time (25 games) after patiently waiting out Gibson. Yet, perhaps owing to Geragosian’s collar-tugging log of 3-14-6, Thiessen would appear in all but three games for the Huskies, battering his way to a an eventual transcript of 11-17-5 and helping the franchise to an overall 10-win improvement.

And, fundamentally speaking, he has fortified his game by plowing through the most adverse conditions. While classmates Chad Costello and Kyle Kraemer finished 1-2 on the still-dehydrated scoring chart with 22 and 19 points, Thiessen worked overtime in 11out of 33 games played in his rookie campaign, going a reasonable 3-3-5 in that situation.

Little has changed in the tests laid before him this season. Ditto his answers. But this time around, the overall glitches have been less conspicuous.

For starters, he backed the Huskies to an opening night OT triumph over the Friars, to whom he had previously lost and tied in the exact same scenario. A string of four losses followed, but after a third-period benching against New Hampshire at the tail-end of that skid Nov. 2, Thiessen has gone 6-0-2 over eight succeeding appearances, including another three lovely bonus rounds. Among those were two ties and a 4-3 road overhaul of none other than BC that required 2 saves on his part before Jimmy Russo inserted the clincher with 4 ticks remaining.

All those points have amounted to a pleasant surprise, though one ought to be reminded that the last-place Merrimack Warriors are a not-so-distant six notches behind the Huskies. But so long as Thiessen stays true to his grinding form and his praetorians make better scoring habits, Northeastern just might, for once, be looking at a non-Beanpot outing to TD Banknorth Garden.

Cats are top titans

Four days after the USCHO polls flip-flopped their positioning, the #2-ranked New Hampshire women’s team hosted and zapped the previously undefeated Harvard, 4-1, in an altogether less-is-more fashion Friday night.

Despite dispensing what was by far their most infinitesimal bushel of shots –game total 12- the feisty Wildcats converted on one-third of those stabs. Within seven minutes of action, Wildcat freshman phenom Kayley Herman (22 total saves) held a 4-1 saves advantage over her opponent, Christina Kessler, who had already authorized a power play goal to Courtney Birchard at 6:49.

Kessler –still second in the nation in the area of shutouts and save percentage- went on to deal with a mere two shots apiece in the latter two periods, yet uncharacteristically whiffed on three of them. Sam Faber, Hockey East’s top gun and the lone Cat to muster more than two shots on the night, pitched in two goals to sandwich teammate Micaela Long’s conversion and sculpt a commanding 4-0 edge at 3:07 of the closing frame, wherein Harvard dictated the shooting gallery by an 11-2 count, but did not hit the board until the revered Jenny Brine (team-leading six shots) and Sarah Vallaincourt collaborated when a slim 10:43 remained.

The Crimson, now 11-1, themselves matched a season-low in the shooting gallery, having also dispensed 23 in a 5-1 win over St. Lawrence on November 24.

Miscellany

Last week, USA Hockey personnel toured and assessed each of its final three candidates for the site of the 2009 World U18 Championships –Providence being their final stop on Tuesday. On the national program’s official website, executive director Dave Ogrean said that they plan to make their final cuts between the Divine City, St. Cloud, Minn., and Fargo, N.D. early next month…Within six days of their blurrily detailed suspension, Boston University veterans Brian Ewing, Dan McGoff, Brian McGuirk, and Brandon Yip were all reinstated Wednesday, having missed but two games and presumably primed to resume play with the rest of the Terriers against Merrimack December 30. The only striking difference now is that McGuirk has been stripped of his captain’s C…A Harvard Athletics press release announced that former Crimson and current Team USA women’s face Angela Ruggiero will participate in an Olympic goodwill military tour. Ruggiero will tag along with fellow Olympic athletes Shawn Crawford, Jessica Mendoza, Shannon Miller, and Mike Whitmarsh on a ten-day visit to Afghanistan…Hockey East’s last gift before Christmas is a serving of the Maine-UNH rivalry at Whittemore Center on Sunday afternoon, 4:00 PM. All that a win would mean for the host Wildcats is officially leap-frogging three other conference rivals (Amherst, BC, Lowell) and forging a virtual tie with Northeastern, which has a game in hand. Meanwhile, the healing Black Bears could similarly pull even with the Friars for sixth place if they snagged a two-point package, augmenting their total to 10.

Quick Feeds

Going into the halfway mark of the season, seven veteran Friar women players are currently on pace to, rather facilely, post career scoring years. Senior forward Cherie Hendrickson has already done so with nine points, bettering her freshman and sophomore totals of seven…Defender Colleen Martin leads Providence in plus/minus with a sound +7 rate in overall play. Tied for runner-up with a +6 apiece are Martin’s blueline colleague Erin Normore and goaltender Danielle Ciarletta. Collectively, the Friars are even on that front overall and plus-5 in Hockey East action…In fourteen games played this year –the same number of appearances in 2006-07- Ciarletta has already surpassed her sophomore saves total of 301 with 309 at the half of the current season…Through fourteen games this season, the PC men have drawn first blood on twelve occasions and lost both of the exceptions, the last of those being the home opener against Holy Cross October 20…According to coach Tim Army, the Friars will resume formal practices before the regional members of their roster take off for home on Thursday. The remainder of the team will leave on Friday before everyone reconvenes on Boxing Day.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Hockey Log

Grooming for the Great Lakes

It will be hard to for anyone blame Providence College coach Tim Army if, come December 27, he is preoccupied with 1985.

The Friars are meticulously spending a three-week, no-game gap physically retooling and strategically fostering in preparation for an excursion to the illustrious Great Lakes Invitational at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, the site where Army captained the Friars to their last of two Frozen Four appearances.

Though not one to divert too far from the task at hand, the coach admitted that this holiday treat means cracking open a class-of-its-own memory album.

“This will be an enjoyable trip for a lot of reasons,” he said Friday in a phone interview. “It does bring back some good memories for me as a player and a coach.”

Army proceeded to briefly recall his senior year as a PC puckster, when he personally bagged the inaugural Hockey East scoring title and successively piloted the Friars to Motown, where they fell short in the title tilt to RPI, 2-1. Additionally, Army has had some momentous brushes with the Red Wings, having been a sidekick skipper for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 1997 and the Cinderella Washington Capitals of 1998.

“That was a really great time for our franchise,” he said of both experiences, one wherein the Ducks won their first ever playoff round and the other when the Caps trekked to their first Stanley Cup Final before submitting to the dynastic pupils of Scotty Bowman.

Swooping back to the present, Army hopes to use the college game’s most popularly acclaimed holiday tournament to similarly advance the Friar Hockey tag.

“(Previous head coach) Paul Pooley had already received a commitment (to the GLI),” he recalls. “So when I took over in 2005 and was given the schedule, this was on the horizon. It’s obviously very exciting.”

But the short, simple truth of the matter is it won’t be easy. As of the December 10 polls all three GLI staples –Michigan, Michigan State, and Michigan Tech- are all in the spotlight. While Providence earned its first honorable mention of the year, receiving a cumulative 7 votes from the USCHO panel after its overriding home impressions against Brown and Union, Michigan Tech leads the unranked reckonables with 58 votes.

Meantime, the Wolverines, lined up with the Friars for Day 1 of the tournament, only recently usurped the top slot in the nation from CCHA rival Miami-Ohio. The defending national champion Spartans are rigidly clutching the #5 position.

Come what may, the third-year PC coach declared that he has finally adjusted comfortably to the college game’s customary December deceleration, which has been backed nicely by his team’s 3-0 transcript and 17-2 goal differential between Thanksgiving and exams.

Now, Army says, the forthcoming agenda –informal skates, a hefty helping of gym activity, a four-to-five-day home respite, “an intense practice” on Boxing Day, and a subsequent skate in Detroit- should effectively preserve the recent magic and warm up his squad to the unchartered, vibrant western pool.

“We’ll utilize our time effectively,” he said. “I feel really good with how we’re using our time.

“All three teams in that tournament are having great years, they’re very deep,” he observed. “Whoever you play is gonna be very good, and it’s a great challenge. It’s a great opportunity for our program to try and improve on a game-to-game basis.”

“We will have had four formal practices (between now and then), but I think it will be a good break for us. It came at a really good time.”

Feature: European Influence

Scribe’s note: This week’s edition of The Hockey News (press date: December 4) included an NHL team’s column with a specific focus on “the level of European influence” Just for fun, and to provide work for a little more ink, here now is the PC program’s version of that report:

It has to count for something that junior Mari Pehkonen’s presence with her North American teams has been constantly shriveled by international obligations.

Even more so given that Pehkonen first came to the Ocean State already with a sprinkling of Torino Olympic experience –which disrupted her only year at Minnesota-Duluth- in her diary. And then add the fact that her Italian job amounted to three goals in five games.

To follow up on that, in both of her years with the PC Women, Pehkonen has taken leave for two weeks in November to represent her native Finland in the Four Nations Cup and habitually caps her collegiate season by priming for the Women’s World Championships.

Though she generally hung about and impressed on her home half of the Atlantic up until her commitment to UMD, jet lag has never been a problem in Pehknonen’s new lifestyle. In 2006, she snagged a goal-assist package in her first game back from Torino with the Bulldogs, a 5-1 pasting of Minnesota State-Mankato.

More recently, she flew back from Sweden four days prior to the Friars mid-November excursion to Ohio State and proceeded to toss in an assist against the otherwise stifling Buckeyes.

And quirkily enough, Pehkonen –who is also profiled on the Finnish edition of Wikipedia- transferred to Providence side-by-side with goaltender Danielle Ciarletta after Ciarletta’s crease was usurped by Olympic phenom Kim Martin of rival Sweden. The slick Pehkonen has since augmented her scoring output (29 points as a sophomore compared to 14 as a freshman) and all but affixed herself to the starting line.