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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On Hockey

Ripening rivalries in qualifier round
BU-NU women’s tangle not to be overlooked

If the Connecticut Huskies –on tap for a 1 p.m. Saturday drop-in at Schneider Arena to lock twigs with the PC women- are to have their way, it will be their own 2004 Red Sox spin on a matchup that has made a rigid habit of lining up whenever one party must turn in their game garb at day’s end. Otherwise, the Friars will yet again muzzle the menace from across their western border and swipe the dislodged “revenge seekers” cap in turning their focus to either Boston College or New Hampshire.

Just be careful not to utterly deplete your appetite for a go-anywhere postseason hockey clash pitting mutual animosities against one another. If all goes according to plan, after the third period buzzer finalizes the first WHEA playoff game ever conducted in the House That Lou Built, fans can crack open B2 Networks on their laptop to view an inner city dogfight between Boston University and Northeastern.

Fans with a partisan palate for that game –slated to commence at 3 p.m. Saturday at Walter Brown Arena- will only be shamed should they suddenly choose to take a breather from all the litter natter they have been sharing over the men’s Beanpot and the just-finalized, double-knotted home-and-home series between the other Hockey East’s runaway heavyweights. Now is not quite the time for these fans bases to let up on one another. (Hey, after this, they get a three-week break till they all but inevitably reconvene at the Garden, do they not?)

No, on paper the BU and NU women do not measure up for the same type of liable arm wrestling match as their male counterparts or the PC-UConn card. But Hockey East chieftain Joe Bertagna had his reasons for augmenting the playoff pool this particular season, a decision he publicly pronounced amidst last year’s tournament and which was formally approved by his satellite athletic directors the following month.

And, incidentally, the Terriers and Hub Huskies are the core reasons.

The four-year-old BU program took in its first sliver of postseason play last year while Northeastern was convincingly distancing themselves from the plebeian sect of the standings. And as was thus to be expected this season, as Maine went, so went Vermont –and fast.

So, here you have your sextet of worthwhile challengers for the Yet-To-Be-Named Trophy. You have the self-explanatory Battle of Southern New England raring for renewal in its fourth WHEA tournament bout in seven years.

In Beantown, gaping seeding and point differentials aside, you have two altogether green programs with plenty to prove. Though the Huskies have substantially benefited from the peerless goaltending tandem of Florence Schelling and Leah Sulyma –twice at the Friars’ grudging expense- they may want to make sure they aren’t still hurting from the loss of would-be scoring nucleus Chelsey Jones (an offseason transfer to Minnesota) if they are to play any hockey in March.

Or they might not need to take such a measure. The Terriers sculpted a hefty accumulation of 29 league points on the year, only one shy of BC in the chase for a first-round bye and a good 14 up on their other crosstown rival.

Then again, BU indulged in this year’s newfangled extra point shootout buffet more than any other conference cohabitant. While no other team resorted to more than two shootout points, the Terriers wrested four of them. What if this bout took a bonus round and Schelling assertively held out the Boston strike force long enough to pin counterpart Allyse Wilcox in a netminder’s starting contest?

Sulyma did that just fine in regulation towards a 2-0 win at Walter Brown Arena back on January 8.

Since then, the Terriers –who have heavily eclipsed the Huskies in the shooting gallery every time they converge- have clipped Northeastern, 2-1, in the Beanpot consolation game and just swept a home-and-home set by 3-0 and 8-1 differentials.

Looks like Dave Flint’s pupils were caught sleepskating just a touch in that finale, the same way Bob Deraney’s players did in last Friday’s 5-1 drawback versus BC. If there is any sort of pattern to that, NU will spring back this Saturday with refined rabidity, whether that amounts to an upset or not. Only once prior to this past Sunday had the Huskies authorized more than four goals in a game (November 1 at BC). And now that they’ve egregiously squandered their shot at an immediate playoff tone-setter, the next best thing is to verify Sunday’s flukiness in the “real deal.”

In a way, the Terriers have the same sort of vinegar to rinse off as they conduct their first postseason venture since a rapid 8-0 exile from last year’s semis by the almighty Wildcats. The matchup of incumbency and inexperience could not have been much plainer that afternoon.

That said, expect the protracted buildup to accurately translate to yet another obsessive-defensive tussle. It has been that way across the coast for the better part of the last five-plus weeks. And it can be that way again, provided Northeastern’s stopper drapes her show-stealing curtain (Friartownies, for one, need no further explanation).

Bottom line, one of the Hub Clubs is guaranteed to push up their evolution one unexpectedly extra stride.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

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