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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

2008 In Review: Women's Hockey

Change of starting pace
Fire beneath burns hotter for Friars

If they weren’t clear on it at any time prior, the PC women were plainly wary of “old” shortcoming patterns by the time the legacy of their first –and, to date, only- NCAA tournament bid became a complete hologram.

That was precisely what happened in the evening stages of Winter 2008, when the Friars duplicated the upshot of their 2006-07 campaign. Pinned right on the .500 fence overall through their 34-game regular season slate, they were yet again helplessly left to rely on the capricious automatic bid that comes with a conference crown.

Once again, they had enough sentimental Rockstar to guide them safely through a stretch drive thriller and a semifinal triumph, this time a 5-1 shellshocker over WHEA tournament host Connecticut. But, yet again, the dream took a Wildcat-enforced nosedive in the title game. The almighty New Hampshire stamped a tensely excecuted 1-0 triumph to stretch their reign of Hockey East supremacy to a threepeat.

And so, the last skating specimens of the fêted 2002-05 dynasty collected their degrees at the Dunk and parted from PC. And their immediate descendents have been left with an enterprise to rekindle the Friars’ national relevance in their own right.

As he approached his tenth year behind the bench, though, head coach Bob Deraney pledged a resurgence of the very sort sooner rather than later. More wholesome recruiting classes were on the horizon, he said, now that constant tangible success wasn’t exactly scaring talent off with the threat of strictly prioritizing veteran pin-ups.

If any fragments of the status quo from where the Friars had left off had a chance to carry over into training camp, it would have been the fast-trendy PRO Line of Mari Pehkonen, Alyse Ruff, and Jean O’Neill. Converging as a unit somewhat circumstantially when Pehkonen returned from a Team Finland obligation in mid-January, the trinity proceeded to charge up a combined 31 points over the final 10 games of the season, unmistakably anchoring PC’s close shave playoff push.

But a preseason upper body injury to the sophomore O’Neill opened the door to new blood and new depth. Ultimately, rookie Laura Veharanta filled the O’Neill void and has since cemented a stable partnership with Ruff and classmate Ashley Cottrell on the top line. Already, Veharanta speaks of a 12-6-18 scoring log over her first 17 games, Cottrell a 2-9-11 transcript.

Generally speaking, the rest of the depth chart has yet to catch on, though it has progressed well enough to clear everyone’s immediate memory of a choppy 2-5 start to this season. The Friars have thus hit the holiday break with a winning record for the first time since the current seniors were freshman, equating the 9-6-2 mark they boasted when the December deceleration of 2005 settled in.

Even when they struggled to thaw out in October, Providence was convincingly self-controlled owing a hefty debt to keen defense and goaltending. At their current pace, the cage tandem of freshman Genevieve Lacasse and incumbent Danielle Ciarletta makes a reckonable candidate for the WHEA’s virtual equivalent of the William Jennings trophy, having authorized a slim 29 cumulative goals (plus two empty netters).

Lacasse, more than anybody, has laid claim to the pleasant surprise label, having pole-vaulted three returnees to earn the nod for 12 of the first 17 ventures. She has pushed away 360 of 379 opposing shots for a league-leading save percentage of .950 (tied with Northeastern’s own freshman phenom, Florence Schelling) and an 8-4-0 record, complete with two shutouts.

Raring to delve into Part II of their season this coming Tuesday, the revamped Friars are modestly yearning for a way to enhance their commanding grip on each individual game, which will, in turn, make for a more relaxed plow into the postseason as opposed to the habitual, detrimental test-cramming they’ve been reduced to in recent years.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

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