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Friday, March 6, 2009

On Hockey

Not much to do but play
Dogged Friars face nothing-to-lose scenario vs. UNH once more

The PC women have twice combated and defied presumptively vengeance-minded adversaries to claim their passport for tomorrow’s voyage to Lake Whittemore, where the WHEA tournament-host New Hampshire Wildcats are 12-0-3 on the year and primed to dislodge the Friars for the third consecutive season.

Translation: time for a 180-degree reversal of roles. And time to purge all of the finer points.

Flustering as it may be for critical observers, the pad-clad women in charge at ice level and contesting skippers Bob Deraney and Brian McCloskey have a most diluted scroll of talking points before them in advance of tomorrow’s 12:00 p.m. semifinal face-off.

As far as unadulterated, objective projections are concerned, the almighty Wildcats tip the scale in most every department. And so, for their part, the Friars need only labor on a cruiser-load of determination and the fundamental notion that if they literally stood no chance, they would not be allowed to conduct this contest in the first place.

But not much can be produced in the way of an assessment without forking beneath the basic layers of this pregame card. And in hindsight, Providence has the red meat of recent history all to itself, seeing as the Cats have floated along on a 13-game winning streak since their 5-0 nosedive at Schneider Arena on January 10.

A mere three weeks to date, the Friars scraped out one of their less forgivable shortcomings –as far as Deraney was concerned- in the form of a 3-2 home falter. The following night, they submitted a 4-1 decision in Durham. And in a matter of 26 hours, their deficit in the Hockey East points column broadened from four to eight and UNH happily hopscotched away with the regular season championship and the tournament hospitality duties that come with it.

Ever since that weekend, this author has already taken about ten voluntary full-rink sprint laps as penance for his initial call on the numerically challenged 2008-09 Wildcats.

Much to the torment of coastal fans who view his program with animosity formerly reserved for the New York Yankees, it is now plain that McCloskey used the months that he had to formulate his approach to that drawback before training camp even started. His seventeen rostered pupils have since shot out to a respectable 4-0-2 start, hit a 5-4-2 speed bump prior to Christmas, and then took the aforementioned bow to the Friars to start the new calendar year.

Since then, they’ve merely charged up a dozen unanswered wins by an aggregate 56-23 margin and are indulging in an extra week’s worth of post-season fostering plus yet another regular season crown. And so, up to this point, not much has changed for McCloskey’s four seniors who are pining for one last conference banner.

Well, why not? They’ve got their jealously guarded, overgrown pond to defend their title on, have they not?

That’s where the most harrowing sliver of data lies: since a 2-1 slipup before Princeton on November 11, 2007, the Cats are 22-0-4 at home. PC drew the first of those four ties on January 19, 2008, and have plucked a point out of two other visits since the WHEA’s 2002 inception. But, on the whole, they are 0-13-4 in their last 17 full-blooded away games at the Whittemore Center, their last (and only) win being a 4-3 final on January 11, 1997.

Although, any Friartownies who do flock up north tomorrow are certainly entitled to a faith in eventual change. After all, their beloved male pucksters just missed the Hockey East playoffs for the first time in 24 years.

And, potentially, this game could be more enticing for the visiting masses if the rust from a 13-day respite takes its toll and forces the Wildcats to resharpen their blades with the ice itself for about ten minutes. Dimensions and dynamics aside, first dibs on momentum just might make the Friars float. That’s how last Saturday’s preliminary round overhaul of Connecticut unfolded and it’s also how a bitter load of virtual postseason games against UNH and Boston College turned against them and ultimately zapped their shot at a first-round bye.

But if freshness is enough of a factor, perhaps they will cease to dwell on the consequences of that altogether vinegary February. That goes for the prospect of spilling this bout into a protracted overtime period, too. Under those eventualities, New Hampshire’s numerical deficiencies could be to March what a flu bug is to April: not a ghastly threat, but still able to bite.

Still, the Wildcats stashed away their collateral early and often. If not for the sheer satisfaction of spoilership and conference bragging rights, they could throw this game and do no harm to their NCAA viability. Conversely, the Friars expressly believe that they still have yet to reach the height of their game, let alone flaunt it. And they’ll need to pull it out if they are to prolong their season anywhere beyond tomorrow.

They can’t say they don’t know that drill. And naturally, the elder classes are especially weary of compressing the bleeding of a Catscratch as they march en route to their locker room’s spring cleaning spree. Some are running out of time to reverse that fortune.

If nothing else, they have that incentive to subsist on in tomorrow’s bout.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

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