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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Hockey Log

Friars yearning for extra points
Statistically similar Niagara team on tap

By Al Daniel

OK, they’ll give this another go-around, but it should be noted that they are now looking at a limited time offer.

Finally ready to thaw out its game schedule after the traditional four-plus-week holiday freeze, the PC women’s hockey team gets one last unremitting string of interleague play, courtesy half of the compact College Hockey America conference. It begins Friday with a two-night stay at Niagara and will carry over to a pair of hostings to mighty Mercyhurst next weekend.

Sure, it does mean pushing off the Hockey East slate –where, at 4-2-1, they have by far cultivated the most substantial pleasure this season- for what will ultimately be a numbing 48-day layoff. They last threw a few pots where it matters first and foremost at the advent of December through a home sweep of Maine and will pick it up again when they visit arch-rival New Hampshire a good two weeks from now.

But the fact is, if the Friars do not pounce on the current agenda and nurse their non-conference transcript to long lost strength, consideration in the national polls could become a more wearisome hunt than the NFL’s collective search for a New England Patriots’ kryptonite.

Ever since its one and only call on to the NCAA tournament in 2005, nonconference follies have had an exponential presence in keeping Providence from another invitation. The Friars went dead-even outside of Hockey East in 2005-06 –the year they also relinquished their conference banner dynasty- at 6-6-2. Last season, they gnashed their way to a runner-up honor in the HEA title tilt, but a fleck-laden 4-10-1 transcript elsewhere dashed their hopes for an extension.

This year, the Friars are but one graduating class –Kathleen Smith, Cherie Hendrickson, and all- away from watching that 2005 legacy taper off to a complete hologram. And the last time they were sent in formal game attire, they tripped and slipped against an underhand Yale and speaks-for-itself Harvard team, leaving them at 2-6-1 against alien league tenants.

Three of PC’s last five interleague falters –spanning from early November to the closure of their 2007 slate- were by chin-knocking 2-1 counts, while the other two were 4-1 upshots against ranked or near-miss adversaries. The month-long layoff, though, is a whole other substance that will only flash its true colors once the Friars apply their on-and-off practice-honed craft against a Niagara team that has already chipped off its own inevitable rust.

The Purple Eagles –who have only chewed off two of their dozen CHA contests- are a fraternal 6-8-4 heading into the New Year lined up with a 6-8-2 Friar squad, and are winless since thumping North Dakota prior Thanksgiving. However, after taking three weeks worth of rest to compress a six-game skid, they took credit for two ties at last week’s Nutmeg Classic at Qunnipiac, though they relinquished 1-0 and 2-0 shootout decisions to Yale and the host Bobcats.

Niagara’s superficial frame flaunts an array of forwards that has been at least slightly more dazzling and consistent than the steady-hiking, no-single-superstar Friars –who have barely squeezed out more goals, 46. Purple Eagle junior Ashley Riggs’ 16 strikes and the respectable aid of Mary McKinnon (9 assists and 13 points) and Venla Heikkla (12 points despite missing 8 games) come to mind. Especially given that Niagara grilled seven goals last weekend versus an aggregate five in that aforementioned six-game freefall.

But the Eagles’ backstopping unit has proven just as susceptible to glacial meltdowns on any given night. Goaltenders Jill Zelonis and Nikki Rudy have each authorized 33 goals this season and bowed in the third period of both Nutmeg games to surrender late leads.

Providence, meantime, appears settled on its depth chart order –despite a simple shakeup in starting units during their last tangle with the tricky juggernaut Crimson. If that’s true, the potential defining element of the Niagara visit will be how much, and in what direction, PC’s skating score has morphed over break.

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