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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hockey Log: Sunday Edition

To patchiness and back?
Title-starved PC women have earned primordial trust

Today’s exhibition bout with the Brampton Junior Thunder will break the PC women’s 29-week fast from footbagging and jump-roping in the bowels of Schneider Arena, scurrying downstairs to the locker room, and re-emerging in game time attire with “Mission W” in mind.

And these Friars hope that another 23 weeks of this seasonal activity will kiln a path to cathartic recovery from a Hockey East championship letdown at the hands of New Hampshire.

Seem familiar?

Come time for the league playoffs –refined this year to admit six teams and culminate on the campus of whomever boasts the best regular season record- it will have been four years since this program put fresh numerals on their conference championship and NCAA tournament banners. Translation: it will mark the last call for the class of 2009 to ensure it does not become the first graduating bunch since that of 2001 to depart the Divine Campus with no merry March memories.

Overall, the unwavering don’t-count-us-out sentiment and the strident poise are just going through routine renewal, as has been the case since the day the Friars were overthrown from their uninterrupted four-year claim to the conference crown in 2006. But the more they stall to replenish their contender’s certificate, there has to be an exponentially brisk stream of urgency underneath.

After all, the finished product of the Friars’ 2007-08 endeavor boasts perfect equity with their 2006-07 run: an edgy 16-16-4 (.500) overall record –docked largely by difficulty tussling with interleague rivals- and an automatic bid to the national bracket denied by a New Hampshire nipping in the conference championship.

And sooner or later, perennial teasers like this are bound to lose their general right to reverence.

Yet somewhere down the line, somewhere beneath the topical track record, somewhere beneath that slushy muck of inconsistent stability that has defined their last three seasons, the Friars have convinced at least some outspoken analysts that they can and will ensnare that elusive element of consistency.

Look no further than USA Today’s freshly released pre-season poll, which has Providence perched in the #9 national slot with a grand total of 40 points from the 19-member voting panel. They’ve hovered aplenty around the honorable mention slab, but until this past week, the Friars had not officially broken into the Top 10 since January of 2006.

Why the change? Why the pleasant blindsided surprise?

Start with the fact that the Friars are refilling their depth chart from the bottom up -in terms of grade level- and that the youth has wasted no time flexing authentic strength. The now-sophomore bundle of Jean O’Neill, Alyse Ruff, and Amber Yung were all apt to contribute appreciably as rookies last year.

This year’s frosh crop invites hope of a reprise, particularly Team USA U18 veterans Kate Bacon and Ashley Cottrell –who each took a can’t-hurt slurp of Bob Deraney coaching java at the inaugural U18 World Championships in January- and Abby Gauthier, who whipped home 358 searing points over six seasons at St. Mary’s of Lynn High. A gradual acceleration a la Ruff and O’Neill, or better yet a booming transition to the college game right from their first face-off, may be in order.

Meanwhile Yung and her unofficial mentor Erin Normore constitute part a defensive brigade that only lost team top gun Kathleen Smith over the summer. Be it through daring ventures well beyond their designated point post or through more conservative long-range rockets, Normore, Yung, and rising senior Brittany Simpson were all noticeably productive last season.

More to the backline’s conventional job description, though, Normore will want to spread her plus/minus wealth (she led all Friar skaters with a +19 rate) a little more. Apart from Colleen Martin, who finished at an admirable +16 rate, everyone else was either on the fence or in the red when the stats sheet turned to stone.

In the cage, senior Danielle Ciarletta is the self-evident starter, reassuringly reliable at that. But with a packet of understudies who will have to step up in another year, expect Deraney to implement an acclimation system similar to what he used to foster Ciarletta two seasons ago. Sophomores Jen Smith, who saw either full-length or partial action in six games last year, and Christina England, who has yet to break in her collegiate pads period, could each use a reasonable sprinkling of the workload. Freshman Genevieve Lacasse might just as soon tug on the red shirt as part of a long-term stash.

But that, incidentally, is the twofold project PC wants to take on. All regal programs have that head-swiveling way of enriching their present and insuring their immediate and long-term future.

As Deraney phrases it in the season prospectus, posted on the team’s website Wednesday, “We have some kids who will just take you out of your seat this season. It’s going to be fun to watch, I’ll tell you that much.”

They still need to roll out and credit that claim. But nothing has served to discredit it either.

Western hegemony expectably extends
The full scope of USA Today’s Top 10 women’s poll is, in both numerical and positional terms, a telling royalty-bourgeoisie division. The only three programs to have ever laid claim to a Women’s Frozen Four title –Minnesota-Duluth, Wisconsin, and Minnesota- easily constitute the top three, but the remaining seven slots go to a spread of eastern institutions. In top-to-bottom (4-10) order: New Hampshire, Harvard, Mercyhurst, St. Lawrence, Dartmouth, PC, and Boston College. Additionally, all six of the outsiders receiving at least one vote are based in the Eastern Time Zone. And just to underscore the near-robotic acceptance that the WCHA’s three-way dynasty won’t be unplugged any time soon, the defending champion UMD Bulldogs consumed the first place tab from all 19 panelists. The Badgers, who spilled a shot at a three-peat much to Duluth’s benefit, picked up a runaway 162 points. The Gophers and Wildcats follow with 135 and 125 respective points.

No love for the little guys
USA Today pinned its preseason Top 15 poll for the men’s game on Monday, including three Hockey East inhabitants –ho hum, the defending national champion BC Eagles sit at the pinnacle, plus New Hampshire at #7 and BU #10- in the pool plus another five amongst the 11 programs earning honorable mentions. The two UMass institutions each scraped out nine individual points, Vermont garnered six, and three apiece were awarded to Northeastern and even the suspicious Maine Black Bears, who have yet to prove they have replenished their copious losses in scoring depth from last season. Meanwhile, the only two HEA members without one measly vote to speak of hail from its two least populous campuses of PC and Merrimack.

Ferguson finds new teeth with Sharks
First off, there’s a can’t-miss shaving of irony here. Former Friar John Ferguson, Jr., barred from any front office influence since the Toronto Maple Leafs stripped him of his GM duties, is back on his skates as the director of pro scouting for the San Jose Sharks, the very team that sacked PC grad Ron Wilson, who is now the foreman in Leaf Nation. Ferguson, whose late father John, Sr. was himself in the Sharks’ management cabinet for 11 seasons, was reportedly chosen out of three candidates and will maintain his residence in Toronto, wherefrom he will file his analysis of any potential trade/free agent/waiver pickups in the region back to the Bay Area.

U turn for TV hockey coverage?
As was hinted when the Friar men’s prospectus confirmed a visit from ESPNU to broadcast their February 22 hosting to Merrimack, Hockey East has announced a two-year partnership with the college-centric branch of “The Worldwide Leader In Sports.” The drop-in at Schneider Arena will conclude an eight-game slate that will also offer the following showdowns:

Sunday, October 19, BU at UNH, 5:00

Friday, October 24, Vermont at BC, 7:30

Friday, November 7, Notre Dame at BC, 7:00 (a rematch of the national final to be carried on ESPN Classic)

Sunday, November 9, BC at Maine, 4:00

Saturday, December 6, BU at BC, 7:00

Sunday, January 4, UNH at Maine, 4:00

Sunday, February 1, Massachusetts at Maine, 4:00

So, more ponds are being flooded for the collegiate airwaves. Might this ultimately be a step towards reconciliation between the NHL and the station that formerly employed Barry Melrose? There may be no other answer beyond “stay tuned.”

Long time, no scene
Meanwhile, the New England Sports Network has its second-half Friday night broadcast regimen in place, including the network’s first telecast from the House That Lou Built –January 30 versus Boston College- since it beamed another Eagles’ visit here on February 4, 2005. Do the math: that’s a full collegiate generation, so this year’s graduating class of rink-going Friar Fanatics was spared at the eleventh hour from never hoisting catchy rally posters for Tom Caron and Bob Sweeney to chuckle at.

The rest of the Hockey East Friday Night package for 2008-09 reads as follows:

January 9, BC at Vermont

January 16, Lowell at BC

January 23, UNH at BU

February 6, Maine at UNH

February 20, BC at UNH

February 27, BU at Massachusetts

February 28, Merrimack at UNH

March 6, BC at Northeastern

March 8, Women’s Championship

March 13, Select men’s quarterfinal

March 20-21, Men’s semifinals and championship

Sioux-hoo sentiment in North Dakota
Outspoken members of the fervent North Dakota fan legion are letting out all of their embittered venom over the evident final ruling over the lifelong controversial Fighting Sioux moniker, which now appears condemned to termination no later than November of 2010. Apparently, too many memories and traditions have been superglued to the nickname and logo, not to the University, the captivating Ralph Engelstad Arena, or the succession of legendary players and coaches who have come through. Apparently, everything will turn soggy and flavorless as soon as the program assumes a new, less potentially offensive persona. This author’s advice to fans: if the people (emphasis on “people”) who are reluctantly represented –i.e. the Sioux tribes- don’t approve it, grant them their request and then get back to worrying about the game.

Quick Feeds: Hockey East has pasted brand new graphics on the intro page to its official website for the new season. The men’s link window, naturally, sports a collage commemorating the league’s 25th anniversary. The women’s half boasts an action shot of a representative player for all eight programs: Colleen Harris (BC); Allyse Wilcox (BU); Nicole Tritter (UConn); Genevieve Turgeon (Maine); Kacey Bellamy (UNH); Kristi Kehoe (Northeastern); Mari Pehkonen (PC); and Sarah Smiddy (Vermont)…As is reasonably expectable, the Little Rhody has sparse offerings to the college hockey world. This season apart from the handful of PC men’s players, you can only find rostered Rhode Islanders with the Sacred Heart –sophomore Taryn Lapierre of Burillville and freshman Jamie Mey of Middletown- and Vermont women –freshman Kailey Nash of Portsmouth…The collective puckheaded sugar rush over the “hockey mom” phrase flaunted by one of the US vice presidential candidates can no longer leave this column untouched. Just let this be remembered: one general election ago, one of the nominees was a noted ex-high school puckster and still plays the game recreationally. That didn’t exactly do wonders for him or the game…This author’s pick for the out-of-market game of the week: the University of Alberta, defending Canadian Interuniversity champion, visits Denver this Saturday…RIP Paul Newman, aka Charlestown Chiefs’ player/coach Reg Dunlop.

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