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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Hockey Log: Sunday Edition

Fireworks finale needed from Pehkonen
She’s the 08-09 nucleus by all counts

Visually comparable and sequentially identical to Paul Kariya in the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals, Mari Pehkonen scripted a character-emitting bounce back in a China-based Women’s World Championship game last spring.

The Finnish Friar, taking leave from campus to pitch in for her national team for the third time in the 2007-08 academic year, had clunked with Swedish defender Emma Eliasson early in the April 6 round robin game, rendering her helmetless and halfway helpless.

Yet when the stern Scandinavian rivals inched a 2-2 deadlock into overtime and the Swedes went on the PK, the same Pehkonen was raring to pounce. And just 58 seconds into the power play and precisely three minutes into the bonus round, she leveled home a slapper from the high slot to hallmark Finland’s 3-2 victory.

A touch more than a week later, Pehkonen was back in Providence with a mint bronze medal and a team-leading scoring log of 3-3-6 in five tournament games to her credit.

That’s the type of inflexible, productive doggedness the PC women will need out of Pehkonen in her senior year. In her three preceding US collegiate campaigns, Pehkonen has not quite been the load-the-net-at-will breed that Patty Kazmaier Award voters ogle. But she wrapped up her rink-hopping junior campaign leaving residual promise as a team contributor.

Between her return from the European Air Canada Cup in early January and the conclusion of the college season, Pehkonen partnered with burgeoning puckslingers Alyse Ruff and Jean O’Neill and vacuumed 7-7-14 totals in the last 14 games; this coming after a harrowingly numb six points in her first 17 outings. Her associates, both sophomores as of next week’s start of classes and practices, charged up 10 (O’Neill) and nine (Ruff) points respectively in that span.

For the better part of their 2007-08 venture, the Friars wrestled with their identity like Flipper in a fishnet, having no consistently radiant scorers to speak of. Keeping the PRO Line intact, therefore, is a palpable strategy to start 2008-09 with concrete conviction.

By the same token, Providence ought to have a second nature understanding of why their import forward deserves the nickname “Postcards Pehkonen.” Her birth certificate says she will –by a mere ice shaving- not be eligible for another U22 European Air Canada tournament. But she will assuredly be summoned away from her core agenda this November for a third consecutive taste of the Four Nations Cup.

It would only take one lengthy absence on Pehkonen’s part to render the PRO Line completely and utterly broken up. Therefore, everyone has to be ready to act like they want a contender’s label and learn to make any offensive trinity work.

But from that perspective, Pehkonen could be the Friars’ MVP in her absence.

Here’s how: breaking off to help Team Finland for the Four Nations Cup would, at best, have Pehkonen unavailable for a November 1 day trip to Boston University and a two-night stay at Robert Morris the following weekend. By then, she will have already logged eight collegiate games on the year and PC should have a relatively steady sense of its direction.

If their record amounts to a report card of a high B or better, the other Friars should be mature enough to step up and fill the temporary void. What’s more, though, the test will intensify for both Pehkonen and her Skating Sorority associates upon her return.

Pehkonen’s personal experiment would revolve around making the “I’ve-done-this-before” statement. That is, she ought to defy any jet lag-induced deceleration as soon as she comes back, even if it means taking one more night off after she returns. If she has to take to the sidelines on a Friday night in order to come out roundly braced on Saturday the same way she took a protracted breather after her collision with Eliasson in China, so be it.

For her teammates, the wager would be to keep their enhanced mindset in stone rather than recede to original form and wait for their pin-up to do all the tricks as before. Again, Pehkonen has yet to cook up a lengthy point-per-game flare, despite her clutch stats from most every international tournament she has partaken in.

Although, a point per game was precisely what she averaged in the stretch drive of last season. No time like the present for her and the gritty Friars to build on that flare.

Stashing up a good first step
In a nod to the current edition of The Hockey News (press date: September 2), wherein “NHL team correspondents evaluate their teams’ off-season activity and discuss the most important parts of their 2008-09 schedule,” the Free Press offers the same look at PC’s programs.

Women’s: Starting off with a hefty four-game home slate, so soon after the traditional Canadian club exhibition, and all against interleague mid-to-heavyweights, is a welcome circumstantial bequest, but it will be the Friars’ job to make use of it.

Like PC, Ohio State –on tap for a two-game set the first weekend of October- finished at precisely .500 (17-17-3) overall last year, but pulled a definitive sweep when the teams collided in Columbus. The following Friday, St. Lawrence is due to visit. The Saints rated 6th in the final USCHO poll and mortified the Friars, 8-0, around the same time last year. Looking further ahead, there sit more familiar tangles with established NCAA contenders. Mercyhurst comes to campus November 21 and the Friars venture to Dartmouth January 13.

Deliberation over this issue is only detrimental: the fact is, ever since the Friars last raised a Hockey East championship trophy and women’s hockey assumed the automatic bid policy –both 2005 occurrences- PC has posted insufficient nonconference records. And since an automatic bid is anything but a lock these days, Providence simply has to woo the NCAA pollsters without fail and without delay.

Men’s: Between the first and fifteenth of November, the Friars have a continual string of five home games lined up –four Hockey East games sandwiching an interleague visit from defending national runner-up Notre Dame. By the time they wrap up a two-game hosting to the University of Maine (Nov. 14-15), they will have burned off ten games, seven of them home games and seven of them Hockey East contests. The immediate future from that point bears bus rides to six of seven games before the holidays.

Before they roll into that more tumultuous portion of the journey –never mind the Hockey East stretch drive in January after a month off from action- it is in the Friars’ best interest to stash away as many overall Ws and conference points as they can. It won’t cement their posture as a reckonable contender by any means, but it will be the equivalent of studying early and often rather than needing to tactlessly cram for term finals.

Rheault secures professional Reign
Graduated PC scoring leader Jon Rheault, lacking legal citizenship in any pro hockey organizations since his release from the Philadelphia Flyers system three months ago, finally found solid ice with the ECHL’s Ontario (Calif.) Reign, as was announced Thursday. The Reign, who will serve as the new Double A affiliate of the neighboring Los Angeles Kings, is just settling into SoCal as the reincarnation of the Texas Wildcatters and will drop their first puck on October 18 against the Bakersfield Condors. Additionally, Rheault will absorb the tutelage of Karl Taylor –who relocates from the Kings’ former ECHL abode in Reading, Penn., where Tyler Sims stopped by for a sliver of action last spring.

Coyle of support
The first of many benefits for Jamie Coyle, a Cumberland resident and member of the RI Selects U14 girls’ team who suffered a stroke three weeks ago during a game against Team Vermont, are underway as of this weekend. A series of tournaments ranging everywhere from U12 to adult levels have been conducted at the Smithfield Ice Rink and the Rhode Island Sports Center in North Smithfield. Following right up on that, a “Rock ‘n Skate” event –i.e. DJ dance party on ice- will be held at Mt. St. Charles’ Adelard Arena from 6-10 PM on Saturday, September 6 for $5 per person. Coyle has been treated at Worcester and Boston hospitals and by all counts according to her fund’s website (fightfor7.com, a nod to Coyle’s jersey digit) is recuperating at a favorable rate.

Quick Feeds: Merrimack skipper Mark Dennehy plugged the final void in his staff with Phil Roy, a 2000 Clarkson graduate, temporary minor league and European nomad, and former Division III coach at Hobart and Neumann. Roy essentially succeeds Albie O’Connell, who last month shuffled over to Greg Cronin’s cabinet at Northeastern…Inquired about the University of Wisconsin’s incongruously early commitment from rising high school freshman Jordan Schmaltz, Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, among many others, offered his theory to Tuesday’s Madison Capital-Times: “The landscape has changed. A lot of it has to do with decisions families make, and a lot of it has to do with major junior hockey going after kids a lot earlier and kids being forced to make decisions earlier.”…The NCAA settled on Fort Wayne, Ind. and St. Paul, Minn. as the western men’s regional hosts for 2010 and Green Bay and St. Louis for 2011. As some have been apt to point out, this means an implicit end to the farce of granting regal programs undue home ice advantage in the postseason…A little less than a month till pre-season exhibitions.

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