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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Hockey Log

Friars hustling after Hawks
Home-and-home this weekend commences feverish stretch drive

As would be expected, the media contingent partaking in Tuesday morning’s Hockey East mid-season teleconference had the word “parity” –or any given synonym- eagerly primed for use like a shiny new Synergy twig. And most every coach answered with a cooperative assessment, a general shrug of league-wide esteem, and a predictable reminder that they are in the heat of the season and engrossed with nothing more than fortifying their own club’s viability.

From here on out, there will be no fewer than four simultaneous conference-on-conference battles on a given weekend. And on the Friars’ part, there is precisely two-thirds of a conference platter left to chew –and nothing more.

With eight points separating first place (Northeastern and New Hampshire) and tenth (Merrimack), Providence is almost in the deadest of the dead-center, as is this weekend’s adversary, UMass-Lowell.

The sixth-place Friars are now two points behind the Riverhawks, who are engaged in a three-way, 12-points-apiece lock for third place with UMass-Amherst and Boston College. For what it’s worth, PC does have three conference games in hand on the Hawks, and by the looks of the current spread, that should offer some sort of booster.

Chances are, even if it’s just a few medium cracks in the ice, the Hockey East stretch drive will naturally break up the Pangaea-like blob that defined the appetizer half of the season. But, as coach Tim Army said in the closing portion of his teleconference time slot, the Friars can only make themselves stand out.

“Most importantly, we’ve gotta win games in order to get there,” he said, referring to the four prized slots in the standings that equal home ice in the best-of-three quarterfinals. “Games in hand are only effective if you win them, so for us, it’s continuing to do what we do to succeed as a program, and each team poses a different challenge.

“What’s most important is that we continue to get better and improve daily.”

While the Friars and Riverhawks whet their blades with a poised passion leading up to Friday’s face-off at Schneider, they are both glancing at the other half of the scouting report and seeing a holiday tournament-fortified opponent.

UMass-Lowell, ranked 13th in the nation as of Monday’s USCHO poll, is an iffy 4-4-4 in regular Hockey East games, but has swept its non-conference slate at 5-0 (with a two-night visit from Minnesota-Duluth still to come in two weeks). They made their latest impression at the Florida College Classic, flicking away Cornell, 3-2, and thumping Maine, 6-0 to take the tourney title and curtain December at a spotless 5-0.

So far, so good, and with a generous helping of gravy if you’re a Lowell fan. Last season, the fatally inexperienced Riverhawks’ were a post-season no-show for the first time since 2000. During that interlude, they made back-to-back appearances at the then FleetCenter in 2001 and 2002 followed by an arid four-year stretch without so much as a single game victory in a conference quarter-final series.

More to the immediate point, the forthcoming Friar series will mean taking the Riverhawks’ conference slate out of the cooler after they had gone on a 4-1 run –in effect compressing a 0-3-4 start- prior to term finals.

Looking right back at them, though, Providence spent its holiday tussling with two CCHA giants at the Great Lakes Invitational, charging up its two highest shot counts of the season and getting a material reward with a 5-3 overhaul of Michigan State. When their calendar Zamboni ran by a few days later, the Friars had finished their December with a 4-1 transcript.

When asked for a word on the weekend match-up during his turn on the line Tuesday, Lowell skipper Blaise MacDonald did not hesitate to cite the Friars’ rapid fire upgrade, as well as the intriguing fact that they have seen rich contribution from blueliners as well as forwards.

MacDonald’s two most obvious pieces of evidence –Cody Wild and Matt Taormina- both notched an assist from their point perch in the last Providence-Lowell battle and have since logged seven and six respective points in six games.

Quick Feeds: Carter Hutton, one of the Riverhawks’ three sophomore goaltenders, has only appeared twice since playing the Friars to a 2-2 tie November 16, but could get the nod Friday after resisting 31 Maine shots for a shutout in the Florida Classic championship…Lowell is tops in the league among penalty killing units with 90% success rate in overall play, which the Friars are the best killers in exclusively conference action at 89.2%. PC also has the best power play conversion rate in Hockey East action at 26.5%. Although, as Army recalled Tuesday, both teams demonstrated exceptional discipline in their last meeting, taking an aggregate three two-minute minors...Two of the Riverhawks only three juniors –Mark Roebothan and Mike Potacco- lead their scoring charts with 15 and 13 respective points through 17 games…Part II of this weekend’s home-and-home at Lowell’s Tsongas Arena has been rescheduled to 4:00 from its initial 7:00 list to allow fans to catch the Patriots prime time kickoff against Jacksonville. The AFC semifinal tilt is set for 8:00 Saturday in Foxboro, televised on CBS.

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