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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Ohio State 2, Women's Hockey 1

Bucked in the eye
Friars let opener slip late

Entirely out of matter-of-fact acceptance, and hardly out of eagerness, Friars head coach Bob Deraney prophesied a “learning experience” peppered with all but certain “growing pains” in First Night 2008-09.

After the fact, the fact being a 2-1 falter to Ohio State finalized on a strike by Buckeye forward Colleen Olson with a mere 7:09 to spare in the third and a failure to launch in the last-moments Operation Equalizer frenzy, there was a minor, yet explicitly present, sheet of bitterness in Deraney’s tone.

“I think I’d be insulting these girls if I said to them ‘Hey, we played well tonight.’ That wouldn’t be good enough,” he said. “For other programs, it would be good enough, but not this team.”

Initially hampered by expectable jitters, which amounted to three unanswered power plays, a 7-0 shooting advantage, and a 1-0 scoring advantage for the Buckeyes within the first six minutes, the caffeinated Friars gushed out to chalk up an eventual 40-24 edge in the shooting gallery.

But caffeine, more often than not, equals crashes. And a robust red wall in the form of Ohio State stopper Lianna Bonanno (39 saves) helped the collapsing cause. Save for freshman Laura Verahanta’s connection late in the middle frame, Bonanno resisted the entirety of a 19-shot second period barrage, then watched as her mates tipped the crucial scale in an anarchic third period.

“Their goalie did make the difference,” Deraney granted, adding “they played a college team last week (in their exhibition), and we didn’t. We played a midget team, so we took a while to get acclimated to what the (standard collegiate) pace is really like.”

It showed in the skate-whetting stages of the first period, most tellingly when PC’s Colleen Martin was flagged for a hitting-from-behind infraction at the 1:50 mark. The Buckeyes proceeded to thrust three nimble shots at Friar goaltender Danielle Ciarletta (22 saves), and inserted the icebreaker with 35 seconds to spare on the advantage.

Regrouping on an incomplete PC clear to the neutral zone, backliner Kelly Wild forwarded a skipping stone feed along the near wall to Raelyn LaRocque. LaRoque absorbed it at the blue line, swooped in untouched, and let her shot squirt rather clumsily home.

The Friars subsequently gnashed their teeth through three uninterrupted shorthanded minutes, including 73 seconds of a 5-on-3 deficit, during which Ciarletta pushed away another three shots. But the omens improved for the home mass at Schneider Arena when an interference call Natalie Spooner ultimately brought a premature end to the Buckeyes’ third power play.

Providence finally cracked the goose egg in their SOG column through two consecutive stabs by a fresh-out-the-box Katy Beach. As the whistle distrubtions evened out for the remainder of the period, so did the shot count. Before intermission, the Friars had sculpted an 11-9 lead in the credit-for-effort category, seven of their shots spanning over three power plays.

Their boundless shooting spree only accelerated in the middle frame, as did OSU’s brimming frustration. The Friars heaved 11 unanswered attempts at Bonanno –with five of them, plus a dink off the near post by forward Ariano Rigano, compacted into their fourth PP opportunity of the night- over the first eight minutes of the period.

At the rate they were forking, yet extracting nothing on the board, PC all but needed to catch Bonnano deflated off a face-off. That’s precisely what happened in the waning seconds of another power play when 2:52 remained in the second period.

Mari Pehkonen’s win in the far circle hardly left the radius of the draw, and Verahanta nimbly pounced to slug it in through the crouching Bonnano’s five-hole.

That coming after 13 previous power play stabs (29 shots overall) were swallowed by the chin-standing Bonanno, whose continuing dolphin show was only eclipsed by the Buckeyes’ offensive awakening in the third period.

Limiting the Friars to 10 more attempts while discharging nine of their own, the Buckeyes wrested the lead permanently just moments after PC had polished off another PK.

A disrupted would-be breakout in the far alley of the Friars’ end allowed Michele Tonnessen to feed Olson, who cut nimbly to the net and, much like LaRocque before her, let a soapy low rider slip through Ciarletta.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

On Hockey

PC women must pounce

Every last point counts in the Providence College Friars’ renewed road to redemption. Even those points at stake in interleague contests that don’t break the surface in any standings.

Scratch that. The invisible pairwise points that merely help national pollsters measure everyone up are especially critical for this particular program. A program that sandwiched its one and only conference banner/NCAA bid year (2005) with three years of league glory for lack of an automatic bid policy (2002-2004) and another three with no national bracket membership (2006-08) as penance for not picking up the newly administered automatic bid.

Just their puck luck.

But that trend, these Friars again crave to assert, is as historically frozen as a Cro-Magnon excavation. And there’s no time like the present to roll that assertion out with their season opening four-game home stand, which commences tomorrow night with Part I of a two-night visit by Jackie Barto’s Ohio State Buckeyes.

Friday’s face-off will come a mere five days removed from PC’s 4-1 exhibition victory over the Brampton Junior Thunder, marking their quickest plunge into regulation game rhythm on record.

Contrast that with the past three years –eerily those three in which they’ve fallen short in the Hockey East postseason- when the Friars conducted their one-shot Canadian club invitational, then stashed away the game day attire and broke the whiteboard back out for a full two weeks.

Over each of those three seasons, the October panel of adversaries has grown a pinch tougher on the whole. In direct accordance, the Friars’ final October transcript has grown a pinch tougher to stomach.

In 2005, PC ran up a 3-1-1 overall record in the opening month, though two of those wins were wrenched away from the lightweight Northeastern.

October of 2006 was again highlighted by a pair of wins over the Hub Huskies, but also lowlighted by falters at the hands of Connecticut, St. Lawrence, and Mercyhurst. The record by Halloween that year: 3-4.

In other words, none of the certified or aspirant national contenders who came the Friars’ way in the early going could be solved.

And last autumn, with no help dealt by a month-long fast from home action, Providence throttled the Bluewater Hawks in their exhibition, 10-1, fostered on their own for another two weeks, then drew a 2-2 knot against Maine –the WHEA’s eventual basement dweller who also absorbed an aggregate 11-2 thrashing when they visited PC in December.

The 2007-08 Friars were 1-3-1 when the calendar morphed to November, only cracking the W column at the tail end through a 3-2 tip-over of Boston College. But not before they were shell-shocked by the likes of St. Lawrence, 8-0, and UConn, 5-0.

One month does not a season make. But this author puts it to Mr. Rust and the anti-Lady Luck that they each acted as minimal accomplices in hampering PC’s endeavor to make a searing statement, let alone get momentum cycling in a timely fashion.

The 2008-09 slate flashes wholesomely different circumstances. The Friars have a level, orderly itinerary that has them in action on one or two nights for eight uninterrupted weekends.

And for what it’s worth, as if collecting their dues for last year’s choppier schedules, they get to hang about their own pond and deal with three glaringly familiar interleague rivals –OSU, St. Lawrence, and Colgate- for their first four games.

Recall last season, which saw Providence make excursions to all three of those institutions (their visit to Ohio coming in mid-November). Overall record: 0-3-1. GF-GA differential: 7-19.

These are the teams that the Friars have habitually tangled with as a means of thawing out before they make their indisputable statement within league boundaries. But the plain fact is, to renew their passport to the NCAA bracket, PC can either take back the Hockey East trophy or they can stash away more reliable savings through a healthier nonconference record –especially against the established contenders or those who are also shooting for rebounds, like the Buckeyes and Raiders.

True, they’ve had but three days plus today to retool the depth chart. But the same virtually holds true for the forthcoming Buckeyes, who entertained a scrimmage with Wilfrid Laurier last Friday.

And, if the Friars are to be reliably loud and proud contenders, the heightened pulse that comes with quicker preparation should only signify a poised tempo.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Women's Hockey 4, Brampton Thunder 1

Misty play
Friars victorious in slushy, fog-filled scrimmage

On top of the usual telling dynamics –from the dasher boards still stripped of solicitations (bound to change in the coming weeks), to the rusty PA introductions, to Schneider Arena’s lone annual playing of “O, Canada”- the phrase preseason spoke at its utmost decibel through the Friars’ exhibition yesterday. Summer air, still explicitly lingering in the area, stalked the ice house to cloud the Plexiglas and, in collaboration with the cyclonic skating activity, emit a fog a la the Boston Garden circa May 1988, or Boston College’s Conte Forum about this time last year.

By the 8:30 mark of the middle frame, the officiating quad team spontaneously summoned all skaters out for few soft laps in an effort to neutralize the mist. Two like delays were ordered at 7:36 and 14:50.

The Friars may need the practice in the event of such stoppages when they delve into their regular season slate this weekend. Extended Weather Channel forecasts have relentlessly called for unseasonable 60s down the 10-day road.

Luckily, though, there would be no historic blackout or ref-ordered cancellation before the length of yesterday’s scrimmage panned out. Instead, PC swished effectively through both their adversaries –the Brampton Junior Thunder and the elements- en route to a 4-1 triumph.

“We’re trying to build team of speed, and it’s tough (as it is) to try to play through snow and slush,” head coach Bob Deraney acknowledged. “But our execution today wasn’t that bad, considering the conditions.”

In the younger stages of Sunday’s whirl, the Friar stick rack’s precision was satisfactory enough. They penetrated the steam well enough to land a hefty bushel of 13 first period shots –on top of any unrecorded wide attempts. Just as strikingly, though, Thunder stopper Andrea Weckman tracked and pushed away thirteen of those stabs.

The one she missed fell inauspiciously at the 3:44 mark, a mere 19 seconds after Brampton had gone on its first power play. Friar flare Mari Pehkonen pounced when the puck when it overran the twig of Thunder backliner Blaire MacDonald along the boards in neutral ice, strolled with it into the high slot, and whooshed a low flyer home over Weckman’s blocker.

The Thunder, who spilled a total of six power plays on the day, were at least visually productive in their more sparse visits to the PC zone in the first period. But a series of face-to-face confrontations with goaltender Danielle Ciarletta only amounted to two saves in her lone period of duty and a handful of wide attempts.

Providence evenly distributed the scarcely arduous crease-watching workload between Ciarletta, Jennifer Smith –who yielded the loan Brampton goal, a low rider through a screen courtesy Olivia Crossley at 12:29 of the second period- and freshman Genevieve Lacasse, who logged a light three saves on as many shots faced in the third.

Conversely, Weckman valiantly absorbed another 32 shots over the latter forty minutes and authorized a costly three goals.

On the heels of killing their second penalty, the Friars inserted the eventual clincher with 12:36 to spare in the middle frame. Rookie forward Abby Gauthier absorbed Brittany Simpson’s neutral zone feed at the blue line, pierced unchallenged down the middle alley to seduce Weckman into a sprawling pose, and left a rebound for Jackie Duncan to spoon upstairs.

Duncan, yearning for a delayed breakthrough in her junior campaign after participating off and on, particularly last season, struck again at 11:47of the third, swooping in from the left alley to rake home a one-timer off Arianna Rigano’s headman feed.

A visually similar play fastened the 4-1 final and invited two PC rookies to their first scoresheet with a mere 4:28 to spare. Defender Jennifer Friedman hauled the puck through the near alley of the neutral zone, then thrust it at Weckman’s porch for an incoming Laura Verahanta to bury.

Hockey Log

PC women not through shuffling

The Friars most indulgently exercised their loose scrimmage options and rotated all eight of their defensive players Sunday, which meant icing a brimming 20 skaters plus three of the program’s four goaltenders.

Officially, rookies Breanna Schwarz and Christie Jensen constituted the taxi tandem amongst the blueliners. On solid ice, that would mean reserving two bleacher seats for them come Friday’s hosting to Ohio State.

Similarly, one line combination fit for a human interest story included the likes of Kate Bacon and Ashley Cottrell, once temporary USA teammates at the U18 World Championships shortly after they signed their NLIs last season. Partnering with senior Katy Beach, the second line productively unloaded ten shots on net.

Again, if head coach Bob Deraney was itching to cement his positional plan, that group would be set to work again this weekend. But that’s the thing. The ice on that issue was no more solid than what the Friars and Brampton Junior Thunder struggled through in PC’s foggy 4-1 exhibition victory.

Jean O’Neill, out indefinitely with a lower body injury, stood out as the solitary scratch amongst the skaters Sunday (she watched the action from the upper bowl with goaltender Christina England).

And yet, for all that she pleasurably produced in last year’s stretch drive on a powerhouse line with Mari Pehkonen and Alyse Ruff, even she will not be immune to rotation once she returns, Deraney said.

Expecting to cultivate “more versatility” out of his entire depth chart this season, Deraney hinted that, once she suits up again, O’Neill will likely be assigned to a different line so as to let a pair of still-burgeoning scorers feed off of her.

“Today was just an opportunity for everyone to show what they can do,” the skipper added. “I’ll go to the tape on it this week and we’ll make more concrete changes.”

Shootout preview showcased
The women’s sect of the Hockey East conference has –albeit unannounced- opted to give the shootout a try this season, as evidenced by a purely expository one-on-one showdowns that followed Sunday’s game.

All 2008-09 games, Deraney said, will end in a shootout regardless of the result. For deadlocked conference games, though, they will take on some statistical gravity. As has been practiced in the NHL, all regulation ties will warrant a point in the Hockey East standings for the participating club. Whoever prevails in the bonus round will wrest away an additional point.

Sunday’s shootout results read as follows:
Tanya Lamon of Brampton: scored by poking the puck through goaltender Genevieve Lacasse’s pads.

Mari Pehkonen of PC: lobbed it wide over the net.

Samantha Revell of Brampton: denied on a sprawling snuff by Lacasse

Ashley Cottrell of PC: scored on a tap through goaltender Andrea’s Weckman’s vacant five-hole

Tenecia Hiller of Brampton: denied on a kick save by Lacasse

Laura Veharanta of PC: denied on a stick save by Weckman

Alexis Ardell of Brampton: scored by lacing it in around Lacasse’s right side

Erin Normore of PC: denied on a glove save by Weckman

Quick Feeds: Freshman Laura Verahanta, filling O’Neill’s familiar post on the top line with Pehkonen and Ruff, discharged a team-leading 8 shots on net. She was followed immediately by classmate Arianna Rigano, who compiled six attempts...Sixteen of twenty Friars etched at least one shot on net Sunday…Jen Smith, by virtue of the deciding goal coming in the second period, was credited with the win.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

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.